App launched in Michigan to alert people exposed to virus

Coronavirus

LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — The state health department and Michigan State University on Thursday launched a voluntary smartphone app to notify people if they have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus, a step toward potentially taking the technology statewide.

MI COVID Alert, which is available for download, is starting as a pilot in the Lansing area. A person testing positive for the virus is given a PIN by contact tracers that allows them to share their result anonymously on the app, which uses cellphone location information and Bluetooth technology.

“One thing we want to emphasize is that this is totally anonymous. We’re not tracking individuals. We’re not learning people’s names. It’s all confidential,” said Bob Wheaton with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Other app users who possibly were within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 15 minutes are notified and urged to monitor for symptoms, be tested and self-isolate. They are not told who tested positive or the exact location they may have come into contact with the infected party.

“It’s always good to find out as much as we can about the virus, how the virus Is moving. The primary goal here is just to make people aware that they may need to be tested or take even stronger precautions,” said Wheaton.

States such as New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, Alabama and Rhode Island have launched similar apps.

MI COVID Alert is free of charge.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the technology is an additional way to contain COVID-19 besides traditional tracing efforts, masking and social distancing. He said everyone in Ingham County — including at MSU — should download the app and turn it on, but people in the rest of the state are free to as well.

“We can learn and refine it in a community that is excited about it before we take it statewide,” Gordon said in a phone interview, saying it is important that a “meaningful critical mass” sign up for the technology to be effective. “The app has been designed to be very protective of privacy.”

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. said traditional tracing is a very important tool, but it is not perfect because of people’s memories and the fact that it can take a number of days to complete. The school may consider requiring the app’s use in the spring semester or later, Stanley said.

“We’re very excited about it, very proud that the state of Michigan has asked us to do this with them,” he said. “It really does offer people (a chance) to get engaged in a way that will make a big difference.”

The state says the app does not notify users with data the health department collects independent of the app. For example, users would not receive a notification about an outbreak at a specific location or area if infected person(s) does not report it in the app.

They say it will still be important for users to stay informed via their local health department for that reason.

There’s no word on how long the state will run this pilot program but if it’s successful they hope to roll it out statewide.

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