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COVID Alert PA app is secure, state officials say

After the launch of a new coronavirus exposure notification app, state officials encouraged the public the download the app and assured them it is secure.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — After the Sept. 22 launch of a new coronavirus exposure notification app, Pennsylvania state officials encouraged the public the download the app and assured them it is secure.

COVID Alert PA, now available on both the Google Play and Apple App stores, was created to help break chains of coronavirus transmission by letting people know if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

As of 9:15 p.m. Tuesday evening the app reported having 31,165 users.

The automated app could potentially be more accurate than traditional contact tracing. Only 75 percent of people respond to phone calls from state contact tracers, Gov. Tom Wolf said at a press conference announcing the app’s launch.

Furthermore many people can’t remember every single person they may have come into contact with previous to experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

“If this positive COVID-19 individual went to a grocery store or food pickup line or pharmacy store and interacted with a stranger whom they could not identify or provide contact of, then that stranger who came in close contact with a positive COVID-19 individual has no idea that they were exposed,” said Meghna Patel, deputy secretary for health innovation at the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The app works using Bluetooth, the same technology that connects your phone to your car. Phones with the app downloaded “ping” a randomly generated number to all other phones with the app downloaded that come close by.

If someone reports a positive COVID-19 test, their phone will alert all phones it “pinged” in the last 14 days.

The app provides information on what steps to take next for those who receive a notification that they may have been exposed to someone who tested positive, and for those who self-report COVID-19 symptoms.

“You can choose to get a call back from someone on our team,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “You can find testing locations if you need to be tested.”

The app does not store personal or GPS location information, so it cannot be used to track the whereabouts of any given user.

“Everything that could be done has been done to try to make this as private and secure as possible,” said Marc Zissman, associate head of cyber security and information sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Lincoln Laboratory, which helped develop the app.

The same technology is already in use in several other countries. Ireland and Germany have been particularly successful in convincing people to download the app; Ireland reports 37 to 40 percent of the population has downloaded their app and Germany reports 20 to 22 percent of the population has downloaded their app, according to speakers at a DOH media call.

Though the U.S. doesn’t have a national app, COVID Alert PA is interoperable with other states’ apps that run through the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL).

Delaware launched its app, COVID Alert DE, last week.

“In the next couple weeks we think New Jersey and New York are scheduled to sign on as well,” said Gov. Tom Wolf (D-Pennsylvania). “We have a bigger and bigger network.”

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