By Carol Vaughn —
Gov. Ralph Northam in a press briefing Wednesday urged Virginians to download and use a new app, COVIDWISE, that can notify users if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
The free app can be downloaded from both the Apple App Store and Google Play.
“Virginia is the first state in the nation to use this technology,” Northam said, calling the app “a really powerful tool in our toolbox.”
Northam and other officials who spoke at the briefing said the app does not track or store the user’s personal information, but uses Bluetooth low-energy technology, assigning random keys to positive cases.
COVIDWISE works by using random Bluetooth keys that change every 10 to 20 minutes. Devices that have the app installed will anonymously share these random keys if they are within close proximity for at least 15 minutes.
Each day, the device downloads a list of all random keys associated with positive COVID-19 results submitted by other app users and checks them against the list of random keys it has encountered in the last 14 days. If there is a match, COVIDWISE may notify the individual, taking into account the date and duration of exposure, and the Bluetooth signal strength which is used to estimate proximity.
Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by a health department case investigator and will be given a unique numeric code. The code is entered into the app by the user and serves as verification of a positive report.
The app’s use is voluntary.
“You are in control; all of this is your choice,’ Northam said.
Go to covidwise.org for information.
“We know people are contagious before they show symptoms. This can really help us catch new cases early, before they spread as far,” Northam said, adding that getting notified by the app of contact with a person who tested positive “means you know to take action.”
“As COVID-19 cases continue to be identified across the Commonwealth, it is important for people to know whether they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the disease,” said Dr. Norman Oliver, state health commissioner.
“COVIDWISE will notify you if you’ve likely been exposed to another app user who anonymously shared a positive COVID-19 test result. Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce potential exposure risk,” he said, adding, “The more Virginians use COVIDWISE, the greater the likelihood that you will receive timely exposure notifications that lead to effective disease prevention.”
Northam noted the state’s positivity rate is holding steady at 7.2% and the seven-day trend in the eastern region is leveling off, hovering at around 10% positivity, after the region saw cases increase in recent weeks.
“We can’t let up on our efforts to get the numbers down,” he said.
Additionally, Northam announced Virginia is joining with six other states — Maryland, Michigan, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, and North Carolina — to negotiate with two companies, Becton Dickinson and Quidel, to purchase FDA-approved rapid antigen tests, which give results in 15 to 20 minutes.
Each state wants to purchase 500,000 tests.
“This is another way that the states are leading America’s national response to COVID-19,” Northam said.
The bipartisan, multi-state coalition should result in increased purchasing power, according to Northam.
“The people in our states want to see action and together we’re delivering,” he said.
The rapid tests will help because current delays in getting test results make it more difficult to trace contacts and mean people who have been tested must quartantine while they wait days for their result.
“This is about expanding testing and saving you money,” Northam said.
Pastor Keith Jones of Shiloh Baptist Church in Norfolk spoke at the briefing about a collaborative effort by faith and community leaders along with the Norfolk Health Department to create a video and otherwise get the word out to at-risk communities about COVID-19 testing.
The effort came about after the health department starting in April contacted more than 700 residents of public housing in an attempt to spread the word about the need to get tested for the virus if they had symptoms.
Only four people requested testing after that effort, Jones said.
The video, which was shown during the briefing, shows a number of pastors and other community leaders getting a COVID-19 test and talking about the need to get tested.
Jones said a group of leaders have been meeting regularly to share information during the crisis.
“Our question was how do we care for a community that has been chronically underserved” and as result has “an age-old mistrust” of health care, Jones said.
Pastors have spoken about testing from their pulpits and testing has been conducted at churches, which Jones called “places of trust.”
Around 1,188 people have been tested in the area since the initiative began.
Northam said the Hampton Roads initiative “will be a model for the rest of Virginia.”
Northam said one person in Lancaster County died as result of Tropical Storm Isaias.
Suffolk, Courtland, Lancaster County, and Gloucester County were particularly hard hit, he said.
The National Wealther Service has confirmed four tornadoes in the state during the storm.
The Virginia National Guard staged 80 soldiers and 30 vehicles in preparation for storm response, Northam said.
Dominion Energy said Isaias was one of the top 10 storms the company has dealt with in terms of power outages, according to Northam.
“This is just the first storm of the hurricane season,” he said, urging Virginians to be prepared for future storms.