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Maryland says 1M smartphone users opted in to mobile contact tracing in first week

After Google and Apple developed the bluetooth-based technology, the state launched MD COVID Alert in mid-November.

A look at screenshots from MD COVID Alert. (Photo via Twitter/Maryland Department of Health)

In between the many election alerts we’ve all been getting, iOS and Android users might’ve noticed a push notification for a new service related to the pandemic over the last week.

For users who opt in, the new feature is designed to put smartphones to work in the fight to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. MD COVID Alert notifies users of potential exposure to COVID-19, and helps the state’s contact tracing efforts, officials said.

The exposure notification service was developed by Apple and Google, after the two tech giants who are often competitors decided to come together to address the pandemic earlier this year. State government got involved in launching it locally.

“Many employees from the state then worked with that technology to make sure that it would work with our contact tracing operation and to customize the messaging and parameters delivered to users in the state,” said Maryland Department of Information Technology Deputy Secretary Lance Schine. “There has also been a large effort to promote the use of this application, because the higher the adoption rate by citizens the more effective it will be with our contact tracing efforts.”

As part of a nationwide push to harness smartphones for public health, the launch was months in the making. An initial announcement of Maryland’s involvement came in September, as, five months into their partnership, Google and Apple decided to develop the technology that would enable the service, pivoting from a model that left states to build their own standalone apps after only six were launched.

The service was officially launched by Maryland on Nov. 10. While a Maryland Department of Health press release said the mobile contact tracing is “not a substitute for traditional contact tracing or for preventative public health measures that include wearing a mask, social distancing in public, frequent hand washing and avoiding large crowds,” officials see it as a tool in getting word of possible exposure to citizens, and helping public health officials identify who might’ve been near them so they can urge quarantines and testing.

Users remain anonymous, their location is never tracked, and no data is collected from their phones.

“This application cost the state very little to put into usage and therefore any lives saved from this application and its connection with our contact tracing efforts is a success,” Schine said.

Users have to opt in to the service to activate it. For iOS users, it’s available on version 13.7 or later. After getting a push alert, users must enable it in the phone’s settings. This means they can also turn it off. On Android, the push notification prompts users to voluntarily download the app. This also means that the extra step of turning it on or downloading an app is necessary to make the service effective. So far, the state said more than 1 million users opted in.

“We believe that just in the first week that is a huge success and that number will continue to grow,” Schine said.

As of 2019, the overall population in the state was a little over 6 million people. Uptake has been an important consideration in making the app effective in helping to stop the virus. One study from Oxford University researchers that was published in April created a model that showed 56% participation among the U.K. population was needed for such an app to be effective.

The Maryland app uses Bluetooth, not location tracking. The service sends users an alert if their phone has come close enough to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 that the user might have been exposed. The state sets these parameters as coming less than six feet of a user that has been exposed for 15 minutes or more. To determine whether there has been exposure, the system uses low-energy bluetooth technology, the state said.

Each phone is assigned a random identification number, which changes every 10 to 15 minutes. Each day, a phone downloads a list of all the ID numbers associated with positive COVID-19 cases, and checks them against the ID that the user who tested positive encountered in the two days before the positive test or onset of symptoms. If there is a match, the users who were potentially exposed get notified of the date of exposure. The alert also advises users to get tested, monitor symptoms and quarantine. A human contact tracer may also follow up via phone.

As with any new tool that’s launched on a device that users carry around all the time and has a lot of personal info, there are questions about privacy here. With the launch, officials sought to emphasize that the service is protecting privacy, and point to moves to make it voluntary, its use of randomly generated IDs, and its non-use of location tracking.

“Users remain anonymous, their location is never tracked, and no data is collected from their phones,” Schine said.

Companies: Apple / Google / State of Maryland
Series: Coronavirus

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