Kristen Jordan Shamus
| Detroit Free Press
Want to know if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus? Now, there’s an app for that.
Called MI COVID Alert, the free app for iOS and Android smart devices was rolled out statewide Monday by the state Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
Anyone who has downloaded and enabled the app who has been within 6 feet of another MI COVID Alert user for at least 15 minutes in the last 10 days will be notified with a push alert if that close contact tests positive for the virus.
“We want people to be as safe as they can be at this very dangerous time,” said Robert Gordon, director of the state health department.
“The most important things people can do to protect themselves are wearing masks, particularly when they’re indoors, avoiding crowds indoors, social distancing regularly and rigorously. Those are the most important things,” Gordon said. “But there are other things people can do to protect themselves. And one of them is learn when they’re exposed to others who have COVID. The sooner you know, the sooner you can get tested, the sooner you can quarantine.”
The app could “make a meaningful difference in bringing the virus under control,” said Gordon, explaining that Michigan is now seeing “exponential growth in the number of cases, in hospitalizations and we also see fatalities rising. It is extraordinarily alarming.”
On Monday, the state health department reported a two-day total of 9,010 new cases and 62 deaths.
The seven-day average of new daily confirmed cases — 4,559 — is more than double what it was at the peak of the spring surge. So far in the pandemic, it has recorded 216,804 total confirmed coronavirus cases and 7,640 deaths.
MI COVID Alert was developed by Apple and Google, Gordon said, and is anonymous. It does not share names of those who have gotten positive COVID-19 test results or people who’ve been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases.
It can be downloaded free from Apple or Google Play app stores.
Using Bluetooth technology instead of GPS to ensure privacy, app users can confidentially submit a positive test result with a randomly generated PIN and alert others who’ve recently been close by that they may have also been exposed to the virus.
“Bluetooth works without identifying individual users and nobody captures the information when matches occur,” Gordon said. “Let’s say that I, Robert, start feeling sick. I go get tested. I am positive and I have the app on my phone. Public health will give me a code to enter into the app to say that I tested positive.
“And at that point, a set of anonymous keys will be uploaded to the cloud. And that will be matched anonymously against other phones that were in proximity to me prior to my testing positive. And if a match occurs, someone will receive a notification that they were in proximity to someone who tested positive.
“They will not receive notification that it was me. …They will just receive a notice that says you should strongly consider getting tested. You should strongly consider quarantining.”
App users who had a coronavirus exposure may be asked to provide a name and phone number to connect them with contact tracers at the local health department and provide information about local testing sites. However, submitting those details is voluntary, Gordon said.
MI COVID Alert also allows users to track their symptoms and will give advice on what to do to protect themselves and the others from the virus, which it has so far infected
The app was piloted in Ingham County and on the Michigan State University Campus in October.
From Oct. 15-Nov. 9, 46,704 people downloaded the app — that’s about 23% of Ingham County residents ages 18-64 and nearly 16% of the total Ingham County population, health officials said.
And more than 40 people in that pilot program have received notifications so far of coronavirus exposures so far, Gordon said.
“This app has the potential to provide the kind of early exposure notification that is critical to preventing the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Norman Beauchamp Jr., MSU’s executive vice president for health sciences, in a statement. “In addition to wearing a mask, social distancing and getting tested, downloading the app is one of the most important steps we can take to help keep our communities safe.”
The hope is that the app will help state and local health officials with the contact tracing COVID-19 cases, which gets increasingly more difficult as new daily case numbers continue to rise.
In some parts of the state, Gordon said, local public health officials are overwhelmed.
“We believe deeply in the human dimension of contact tracing,” Gordon said. “But with so many cases, local health departments just can’t keep up and this becomes a tool to identify contacts when the human contact tracing is overwhelmed.
“There are places in the state where that is happening.”
Similar coronavirus exposure apps also are being used in Virginia, Arizona, New York, Alabama and New Jersey. MI COVID Alert will be compatible with those apps as well.
“Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer talked last week on the modeling that shows that if we can’t change course of the spread of this virus, we may well see 100 deaths a day, as we did in the spring,” Gordon said.
“It’s a five-alarm fire, and we need to do everything in our power to get the virus under control … if not for yourself, then for others.”
Those who get notification of exposure should get tested and quarantine, and watch for symptoms for 14 days from the date of possible exposure.
To find a nearby COVID-19 testing location, call 888-535-6136 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or dial 211 on a cellphone to locate and schedule an appointment.
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.