Contact Tracing

Pa. Smartphone App Will Use Bluetooth to Trace Virus Spread, Close Contacts

The app COVID Alert PA can let users know if they have been near someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

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Pennsylvania's health department is launching a smartphone app that will use Bluetooth connection history to determine contacts who may have spread the coronavirus.

The app, COVID Alert PA, was developed by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NearForm, a tech company that has made contact tracing apps for other governments, including Ireland.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced the app in a news conference Tuesday, saying that participation would help the state keep track of COVID-19 cases and help notify people who may need to quarantine. It will launch in September.

"Sometimes it is difficult to recount every step in your day, and who you may have spent more than 15 minutes with, in close contact," Levine said.

If you were waiting in a long line at a store and had close contact with someone there, "you might not be able to say, or you might not know who that person is," Levine said. "If you’re in a town or a city you don’t know everybody." Then contact tracers can use the app to notify that person.

The app uses technology from Apple and Google to measure time and distance near another device in your Bluetooth range, and does not collect location data. Users who download the app will be alerted if they spent 15 minutes or more near someone who tested positive.

Use of the app is voluntary, but Levine stressed it will be helpful to contact tracing efforts. The state has 1,205 tracers working and hopes to hire more, she said.

NearForm's app is already operational in Ireland, where its COVID Tracker app had more than 1 million downloads — about 20% of the population of Ireland and over a quarter of its smartphone users — within 36 hours of the July 7 launch, according to NearForm.

"The more people who have the app, the more effective it will be in terms of this notification process,” she said. A marketing campaign coming soon will address privacy concerns some people may have.

“They’re not being tracked, this is totally anonymous. It doesn’t really track where you are.”

The state selected NearForm instead of apps from other developers that collected location data, geo-tagged individual phones or asked for microphone access to determine and validate proximity between phones.

Levine said more information on the app was coming soon.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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