North Carolina’s COVID-19 exposure app has 100,000 downloads

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In the two weeks since it was launched, North Carolina’s COVID-19 exposure app, SlowCOVIDNC, has been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

But Sam Gibbs, the deputy secretary for technology and operations at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the app shouldn’t necessarily be judged by the absolute number of North Carolinians who download it.

That’s because the state, he said, is being very specific about who it is marketing the app to. Rather than invest in widespread and expensive marketing to all residents in the state, DHHS is targeting the app toward specific populations.

For example, a large majority of people who have downloaded SlowCOVIDNC are students in the UNC System, community colleges or private universities in the state.

“It is not an overall number (of downloads) we are looking for — we are trying to get concentrations in places that” are at high risk, Gibbs said in a phone interview.

“Take higher ed, for example,” he said. “What was attractive with that is early on the largest spreads were in congregate living. What do colleges have? Dorms. The universities were very keen on getting significant numbers on the app.”

Like many states, North Carolina is using technology created by Apple and Google to create its COVID-19 exposure app. Virginia became the first state to launch one in August, and by September more than 500,000 people had downloaded it, according to WVTF, a public radio station in Roanoke, Virginia.

Virginia took a more blanket marketing approach than North Carolina’s targeted one, Gibbs said. As North Carolina’s schools try to return to on-campus instruction next semester, the app could become an important tool, Gibbs added, noting Eastern Carolina University plans to use it heavily.

North Carolina launched its app on Sept. 22, making it available for free in the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, The News & Observer previously reported.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to share anonymous ID numbers with other phones nearby. Bluetooth signal strength is recorded on your phone to estimate the distance between phones, so it can track when exposure to another phone meets the definition of close contact — six feet or closer for at least 15 minutes. If you become COVID-19 positive, and report it to the app via a PIN provided by your local health department, SlowCOVIDNC will tell others if they were exposed a certain number days ago.

The location data is not stored by the app or its servers. “We just know when and how many (were exposed), and that is by design,” Gibbs said. “Then the contact tracers go in.”

While Apple and Google provided the tools to create the app for free, North Carolina hired the same firm Virginia did to customize the state’s app. Gibbs said the state spent $300,000 to $400,000 on it. It took the state six weeks to develop the app, he added, and it uses a national data base so that it can communicate with exposure app users in other states, in case an infected person travels across borders.

The app is voluntary, of course, so the more people who download the app across the state, the quicker potential exposures could be shared with contact tracers.

Since it was launched, 12 positive results have been reported to the app, four of them on Tuesday, Gibbs said. Most people who have downloaded the app have had it for a week or less. (In its first five weeks, 150 positive cases were logged on Virginia’s app, WVTF reported.)

Research done by Oxford University in April showed that 60% of a population would need to use a contact-tracing app to stop an outbreak. The study noted, though, that lower rates could stop infections from spreading.

Gibbs noted that even with a low coverage rate, an exposure app can improve the speed of contact tracers.

“Europe adopted (these apps) before we did … and even at a 14% penetration rate you see significant benefits,” he said.

For example, he said, imagine you had a dorm with 250 people in it. If even a handful of people had the app, and one person gets notified, then the university knows very quickly it has an issue. Then the state’s legion of contract tracers can get to work.

“It is all about time and speed,” he said. “The app is just a complement to our contact tracing efforts.”

In normal cases, if someone starts to feel ill and takes a test, it will take a couple days to get a result, Gibbs said. Then a contact tracer would make a call to that person.

“You might not recognize the number, so you don’t answer it,” he said. “It might take a while for that person to get a hold of you.”

Once they do, then that contact tracer has to get in contact with however many people you exposed to the virus. It could take a week before they are all contacted.

But if you had the app, that notification could travel much quicker. Even if just a few of the people you exposed had the app and then self-quarantined, it could stop the virus from spreading exponentially.

“That is why the early notifications matter,” Gibbs said. “You could knock out a few spreaders (of the virus).”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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