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September 22, 2020

Pennsylvania's new coronavirus contact tracing app now available

COVID Alert Pennsylvania uses anonymous Bluetooth signals to determine possible exposures

Prevention Contact Tracing
pennsylvania COVID-19 app Alvaro Reyes/Unsplash

The COVID Alert Pennsylvania app is the state’s first foray into smartphone-enabled contact tracing efforts.

Pennsylvania residents now can download an app that will notify them if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The app, called COVID Alert Pennsylvania, is the state’s first foray into smartphone-enabled contact tracing efforts. It was developed by the Irish software company Nearform Ltd., which launched a similar app, dubbed COVID Green, in Ireland in July. 

COVID Alert users will receive a notification anytime they spend more than 15 minutes within six feet of another user who has tested positive for COVID-19. The alert will advise them on the next steps to take. 

Using technology developed by Apple and Google, the app relies on anonymous Bluetooth signals to determine when users have been exposed. 

Data is kept anonymous by using "encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently," according to the Associated Press. The app will not store location data, personal information, or the identities of people who were possibly exposed.

While the assurance of privacy is one of the reasons Pennsylvania signed a $1.9 million contract with Nearform, there remain some concerns about the app's ability to accurately measure distances using Bluetooth signals. 

Privacy experts have questioned whether Google's underlying Play Services system will pick up "fine-grained data" from other apps on a user's phone, according to the Irish Times. 

The app will be compatible with Delaware's app and others that launch on the NearFrom platform.

In Pennsylvania, people who test positive for COVID-19 will be asked by local or state case investigators if they are willing to download the app. They will then be given a six-digit code to issue a notification. 

The app will then notify any users who have come in close contact with them within the last 14 days. A person who receives a notification will receive an alert to check the app, with instructions and information from state health officials about staying at home, quarantining and seeking medical help.

The identity of the person who was infected is shielded from people receiving a notification, and vice versa. The app also will include updated case counts, hospitalizations and deaths by county. It also will allow users to monitor symptoms even if they haven’t tested positive for the coronavirus.

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