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Washington launches statewide COVID-19 exposure notification app

The notification system, which is voluntary, will notify you if you were recently in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state launched its statewide coronavirus exposure app, joining more than a dozen other states that have already enlisted the use of smartphone technology in the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19

“This allows more people to get the testing and care they need quickly,” Gov. Jay Inslee said during a press conference Monday.

Starting Monday, people with iPhones can enable the "exposure notifications" feature that is already in their phone’s settings, and Android devices can download the app called WA Notify. Use of the app is voluntary and users can opt out at any time.

The exposure notification technology uses Bluetooth to exchange random codes with phones of other users near you. If you test positive for COVID-19, you can enter a verification code from Public Health into the app. The app will then alert other users who were recently in close contact with you, without sharing personal information, according to Inslee's office.

Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
This series of screenshots taken from an iPhone with COVID-19 exposure notifications turned on for Washington state shows some of the information presented to iPhone users who are considering opting in to a new statewide coronavirus exposure notification program that was launched Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Washington state that uses smartphone technology in the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People with Apple iPhones can now enable the 'exposure notifications' feature that is already in their phone's settings, and Android devices can download the app, called Washington Exposure Notifications. Use of the service is voluntary and users can opt out at any time.

The app does not collect or store any personal information or track location data.

Close contact is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as contact within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes.

The exposure notification will provide information about next steps for the user, including how and where to get tested and steps to keep yourself and those close to you safe.

Health officials say if more people have access to information about COVID-19 exposure, it could save lives. The governor's office pointed to data models from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties that show digital exposure notification systems could reduce infections and deaths by about 8% and 6%, respectively, with 15% of the population participating in the study.

While health officials believe this is an important tool in slowing the spread of the virus, they caution it's not the same thing as contact tracing, because the app doesn't track where you came in contact with the virus or who possibly exposed you.

"We think an exposure notification tool that preserves our privacy is a great complement to traditional contact tracing, but exposure notification is something very different,” Inslee said.

Within the first few hours of the notification system, more than 200,000 Washingtonians had already enrolled in the program, according to Inslee.

The statewide rollout follows a monthlong pilot project run by the University of Washington.

The technology, created by Apple and Google, is in use in more than 30 countries and more than a dozen states in the U.S. Washington was among five states with pilot programs already testing the technology. 

The statewide release comes as Washington battles a spike in coronavirus cases. Washington has reported at least 2,000 new cases daily since Nov. 20, which is the highest rate since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from the Washington State Department of Health.