In the five weeks since Virginia became the first state to launch a COVID-19 exposure app more than half a million people have downloaded it.
The app, called COVIDWISE, allows users to anonymously report if they’ve tested positive. That will alert other users who have been near them. According to the Virginia Department of Health, as of Monday the app has been downloaded 515,825 times.
Jeff Stover, an official with the Virginia Department of Health, says he and others are pleased with the numbers so far, but they’re still pushing for higher participation.
“The more people that download it the better off we all are,” Stover said in an interview Monday. “Every download is better than none.”
When it was launched more than a month ago, COVIDWISE was the first statewide app to use technology from Google and Apple that relies on Bluetooth technology to recognize contact with others, rather than GPS tracking. Officials insist users’ privacy is protected. Since then a handful of other states have also implemented the technology.
Since the app was released in Virginia only 150 people have logged a positive COVID result. Stover says that on average that’s meant between 100 and 130 exposure notifications each day.
“That’s allowing those people to make some decisions,” Stover explains. “They may (decide) they want to get tested, they may decide they want to talk to their primary care physician about whether they should get tested.”
Given the novelty of the technology there’s limited research on how effective it is. But one recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, shows that exposure notification apps can impact coronavirus infection, and death, rates with participation rates as low as 15-percent. The study modeled participation at that level in one part of Washington state and found it could lower infections by 8-percent and deaths by 6-percent. Those numbers rise the more people participate.
Virginia’s Department of Health estimates the current participation rate for Virginia smartphone users at about 12-percent.
“Every download is getting us closer to a place where the app becomes more and more effective the more people who are using it,” says Stover.
To boost those numbers, Virginia officials continue to focus their efforts on marketing. They’ve put ads on busses and in metro stations, ran social media pushes, and are currently working on PSA’s for television.