(WJHL) – For almost two months, Virginians have had the ability to add their cell phones to the COVID-19 fight through exposure notification software, but officials in Tennessee haven’t announced any plans to implement similar strategies in response to the ongoing pandemic.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced COVIDWISE, one of the first exposure notification systems to hit the market in response to the COVID-19 panemic. Apple and Google installed exposure notification options on smartphones across the country.
Jeff Stover, the executive advisor to the Virginia Department of Health Commissioner, said the app has been downloaded to more than 500,000 smartphones across the Commonwealth, but he said he doesn’t know how many of those downloads are in the southwest Virginia region.
“Since it doesn’t track location, it doesn’t track personally identifiable information,” he said. “I really have no way to know where those individual downloads are.”
COVIDWISE plays a support role in contact tracing, Stover explained. Since health department officials don’t collect any personal data from the application, its purpose is rooted in helping community’s slow the spread of COVID-19.
While health department officials still manage manual contact tracing, COVIDWISE is an extra tool that could let people know they’ve had exposure from a stranger.
“The benefit to an exposure notification app like COVIDWISE is that there are people that you may have been in contact with if you are positive and you don’t know who they are,” he said.
While Virginia rolled out the system on August 5, officials with the Tennessee Health Department indicated there are no plans to enroll the state in a COVID Exposure Notification system. Tennessee residents who attempt to sign up for notification through Apple IOS or Google OS get an error message that the feature doesn’t work in their current region.
Officials with TDH declined requests for a camera interview, but provided a statement which read, in part:
These types of applications require individuals to “opt in” to participate in sharing their data, and ultimately many people may not be comfortable with that.-Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson
The spokesperson noted that TDH has expanded its contact tracing workforce and contracted a third-party business to “increase (TDH’s) capacity to conduct case investigations and contact monitoring.”
Over state lines, Stover said VDH still uses traditional contact tracing, but Virginians who opt to use COVIDWISE could receive notification of potential exposure that they might not have otherwise gotten.
From there, the exposed person could get a COVID-19 test and reduce their exposure to others in the even they are positive for the virus.
Studies into the effectiveness of exposure notification software are in their infancy, Stover said, but one study from the University of Oxford, Stanford University and Google projected that high use of exposure notification systems could lower transmission of COVID-19.
The study focused on several counties in Washington state, and researchers projected several models showing that the rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths from COVID-19 decrease with high numbers of adoption of exposure notification apps in the community.
The study, published several weeks ago, lacks peer review, Stover noted, but those models suggest there are public health benefits to using an app like COVIDWISE.
Use across state lines
Althought Tennesseans aren’t able to reap the full benefits of smartphone exposure notification software, Stover said that those who live near Virginia might still benefit from a download.
When VDH alerts a patient that they are COVID-19 positive, they get a six digit code to input into the app, then others who have downloaded the app could get a notification of potential exposure if they met criteria for exposure.
“Everyone else’s app is going out there looking at that server a couple of times a day, seeing are there any positives that have been reported seeing are there any matches for those Bluetooth keys,” he explained.
Tennesseans who live near the border could still get notifications if they were exposed to a Virginian who tests positive, but Tennesseans can’t input their positive result to warn others of potential exposure.
Stover said that about 3,000 Virginians download the app each day.
“I think Virginians are responding to that in a positive way to have almost 550,000 people at this point who are kind of in the fight with us,” he said.