Herald staff and Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Washington added a high-tech weapon in the battle against COVID-19 Monday as state health officials braced for a potential surge of new coronavirus infections following Thanksgiving.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced the launch of a statewide coronavirus exposure app, joining more than a dozen states enlisting the use of smartphone technology in the ongoing effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
People with iPhones can enable the “exposure notifications” feature already in their phone’s settings, and Android users can download the app, called Washington Exposure Notifications. Users will receive notifications of their possible exposure to someone who tested positive. Use of the app is voluntary, and users can opt out at any time.
At a news conference announcing the app, Inslee said more than 200,000 people had already signed up since it went live Monday morning.
“A lot of people do understand the benefit of this,” Inslee said. “This is not a fail-safe for whether you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.”
Deployment of the app comes as states prepare for the imminent arrival of the initial batch of doses of a vaccine manufactured by Pfizer. Vice President Mike Pence told Inslee and other governors Monday that distribution could begin the week of Dec. 14.
State officials are supposed to let the federal government know by Friday where in Washington the doses should be sent. Washington is anticipating receiving 62,400 doses in the first shipment.
Health officials say roughly 60% to 70% of the population will need to be vaccinated to stop transmission of the virus. Until then, people need to be diligent about wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings with people outside their immediate household, Inslee said.
“We are going to have to hunker down,” Inslee said. “It will be months before enough people will be vaccinated to break the chain of transmission.”
In Snohomish County, COVID case rates and hospitalizations continue to climb.
As of Monday, the two-week rolling case rate hit 368 new infections per 100,000 residents — surpassing last week’s record high of 300 — according to Snohomish Health District data.
Meanwhile, at least 90 people were in county hospitals due to the virus, with nine requiring ventilators. Weeks ago, the number of hospitalized patients was in the mid-20s.
The health district did not release its weekly report Monday due to the Thanksgiving holiday. It is expected Wednesday.
The statewide launch of the notification app follows a monthlong pilot involving 3,500 participants — including students, faculty and staff — at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“This offers Washingtonians another tool to help control the pandemic,” state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said of the program, which officials are calling WA Notify. “We see it as a nice complement to the case and contact investigation we are doing.”
The app uses Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus. Phones using WA Notify exchange random codes, which officials said are completely anonymous, with no location tracking or exchange of personal information.
When someone tests positive for the virus, a health official will ask them if they have WA Notify and will give them a verification code — which is not tied to their identity — to enter into the app. Once entered, the app can determine users who have been near the person who tested positive and notify them of possible exposure. No information about who may have exposed them or where the exposure occurred is included in the notification. The notification will direct people to a website with information on next steps, including how and where to get tested.
“I think the really important thing we want the public to understand is that WA Notify doesn’t need to know who you are or where you go in order to work,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, the Department of Health’s deputy secretary for COVID response. “The more people that adopt this technology, the more effective it is.”
The app — which can only be used on smartphones, not tablets — is meant to be used to complement contact tracing that is already being done by the state and local health departments.
“This is an anonymous supplement to our contact tracing system, it is not a replacement,” Fehrenbach said.
After a person tests positive for the virus, a contact tracer gets in touch with the person to determine where they have been and who they have been around to ensure that close contacts are notified and told to get tested and self-quarantine.
Officials said the app could help in situations where a person who tests positive doesn’t know the people they were around, for example on a bus. If others on that bus have the app, they will be notified about the potential exposure within 24 hours of the COVID-positive user entering their verification code into their app.
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., including New York, Colorado and Virginia. Washington was among five states with pilot programs testing the technology.
Inslee and Wiesman cited modeling for King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties that predicted decreases in both infections and deaths if at least 15% of people use the app. Washington officials are hoping to exceed that 15% threshold.
For Snohomish County, infections could drop by a percentage within a range of 6.3% to 11.8%, while deaths could be reduced by 8.2% to 15%, according to an abstract of the study. The modeling, done by Oxford, Stanford and Google, found less success in King County, where it predicted a reduction in infections by 3.9% to 5.8% and in deaths by 2.2% to 6.6%.
Health officials said that when thinking through how many people might use WA Notify, it was estimated that Washington’s age 18 and up population is about 5.4 million, of which about 3.6 million are believed to have smartphones. Based on the early interest so far, officials believe that the minimum goal of 540,000 people participating will be exceeded.
Herald reporters Jerry Cornfield and Joseph Thompson, as well as Associated Press reporter Rachel La Corte, contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos.