An app that can anonymously notify Alaskans when they have likely been a close contact of someone with COVID-19 is launching for smartphone users all over the state, coming just as the highly contagious omicron variant sweeps through Alaska.
The app works by using a Bluetooth signal to detect others close by who also have the app enabled, and sends a notification when a possible exposure has been reported.
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, described the exposure notification system as another tool that Alaskans now have to help prevent virus spread but says its usefulness depends on how broadly it’s used.
“The idea is we have people who may have been exposed and may have COVID-19, but don’t know about it,” said Kenrick Mock, who helped develop the Alaska COVID ENX app. Mock is the dean of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Engineering and a computer science professor. “If they get a prompt that they may have been exposed, then they can go get tested and hopefully stop spreading COVID to other people in the community.”
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IPhone users in Alaska are now able to turn on COVID-19 exposure notifications by visiting their phone’s settings, tapping on “Exposure Notifications” and selecting Alaska as their region.
An app for Android users will be up and running in the next week, Mock said. Those users will need to download the Alaska COVID ENX app from the Google Play store to set up exposure notifications.
Bringing the notification system to Alaska has been in the works for over a year.
The Bluetooth technology that the app uses was first developed in the early months of the pandemic by Google and Apple as a way to help with contact tracing efforts. It has since been adopted by at least 30 states, and a team at UAA helped customize the technology for use in Alaska.
Here’s how it works for people who have opted in: Their phones will send out randomly generated codes to nearby opted-in phones every 10 to 15 minutes. Each phone stores those codes for two weeks. If someone contracts COVID-19, they can document their test result within the app, and anyone whose phone was within 6 feet of that person’s phone for more than 15 minutes at some point over the last two weeks will receive a notification of potential exposure.
To protect users’ privacy, the notification won’t specify exactly where or when the exposure occurred, and there’s no way of tracing the codes back to any users, Google and Apple have said.
The app’s launch in Alaska arrives as health officials describe a recent shift in the way contact tracing is conducted at the state level. State health officials said this month that they are moving away from broad contact tracing efforts to focus on congregate settings and other vulnerable populations — which means it will soon be up to most individuals to report their positive test results to close contacts themselves.
Zink said Thursday that the shift reflects a broader national trend, and that Alaska isn’t alone in making the change.
“We have really hit a different point in the pandemic than we did at the very beginning,” she said. “(We’re) really wanting to use our resources to focus on those who are most vulnerable.”
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The notification system measures the strength of the Bluetooth signal to tell how close people are and for how long to accurately determine close contact, Mock explained. It won’t notify those who have had just passing exposures of longer distances or shorter time periods than six feet for 15 minutes.
Other states that use the technology have seen mixed results, Zink said.
According to reporting from the Washington Post, data showed that by the end of 2021, about 20 states weren’t using the technology at all, and in the ones that were, only a fraction of people were reporting their positive test results in the app.
“How much it is useful in the state will very much depend on how much Alaskans choose to engage in this tool or not,” Zink said.
Mock said getting the system up and running in the state was a lengthy process because initially, developers were required to develop their own app, which they started to investigate but weren’t able to complete.
The exposure notification system also wasn’t a top priority for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services last spring. At the time, the project was awaiting approval by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration and the state health department said it was focusing on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and other broader contact tracing efforts, according to reporting by Alaska Public Media.
In November, UAA took over development and implementation of the app statewide, with the understanding that the university would be responsible for Alaska’s exposure notification system.
Zink said this week that the state wasn’t involved in the tool’s development. Opting in is voluntary, and she said that state officials wouldn’t be collecting or sharing any of the data.