Washington could see 8% decrease in COVID-19 infections with current participation of new exposure app

By Erin Freeman | Lynnwood Times Staff

Washington is the latest of more than a dozen states that have enlisted the assistance of coronavirus exposure apps to increase virus mitigation through contact tracing efforts. And yet, even with the technology in place, its effectiveness relies on us.

Since the Washington State Department of Health launched the smartphone app WA Notify on Monday, November 30, more than 14%, or 1.1 million, of Washingtonians have signed up for mobile alerts of individual exposure to the coronavirus within four days of it going live, announced Governor Jay Inslee.

“Secure, private, and anonymous exposure notification technology is an important tool for Washington,” said Inslee. “We’ve deployed WA Notify in 29 languages so as many Washington residents as possible can protect themselves, their loved ones and their communities. I encourage everyone to start using WA Notify today so we can continue to work together to contain this virus.”

While the state has yet to specify an app adoption goal, health experts say that the greater the number of people who use the app, the more effective it will be in decreasing case counts, with just low levels of participation potentially saving lives.

“WA Notify complements the actions Washington residents are already taking, like wearing masks, physical distancing and keeping gatherings small,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “We’re excited to be joining the states already using this safe and secure technology and encourage all Washingtonians to join the effort.”

A team of researchers at Oxford University and Google who studied coronavirus exposure notifications in King, Pierce, and Snohomish County earlier this year estimate that if 15% of the population use the app, the region could see an 8% decrease in infections and 6% in deaths. Its effectiveness increases with further app adoption.

The app’s effectiveness will potentially be most significant in notifying people who are within close proximity to strangers in public spaces, such as on public transportation, at grocery stores, and other places where an individual is unable to know who the people they’re interacting with have been in contact with.

WA Notify tracks exposures that have potential lead to virus infection, defined by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as an individual coming within six feet of another person for a total of at least 15 minutes over 24 hours.

According to the Department of Health, when two people who have activated the app are within this distance, their smartphones exchange random codes via Bluetooth. The code is completely anonymous, with no location tracking or exchange of personal information. In other words, it is completely private and doesn’t know or track who you are or where you go.

When anyone in the state tests positive for the coronavirus, public health workers will reach out to them, asking if they have activated WA Notify and if so give them a verification code. That person can then voluntarily enter the verification code into the app.

Other WA Notify users who have been near the user who tested positive and chose to enter their code, for a significant amount of time within the previous 14 days, will receive an anonymous alert that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. They are then asked to quarantine and get tested.

The notification received has a link to information about what they can do to protect themselves and others. It does not contain information about who tested positive or where the exposure may have happened.

“People are understandably concerned these days about being tracked and having their personal information compromised,” said Associate Professor Stefano Tessaro with the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “However, the technology behind WA Notify has been vetted by security and privacy experts across the world, and it does not collect or store any information that personally identifies its users. I plan to add WA Notify to my phone and I will encourage my friends and family to use it as well.”

The use of the app is completely voluntary; iPhone owners are able to active exposure notifications in their settings application, and Android users are able to download the app.

Where we are now

In the past two weeks (Nov. 15 through Nov. 21), there have been 2,568 new coronavirus cases throughout Snohomish County, according to the Snohomish Health District.

The target for new COVID-19 cases is 25 or less per 100,000 residents over 14 days. According to Snohomish Health District data on the county’s COVID-19 activity between November 15 and November 21, the county is above the 25 case maximum, sitting at 300 cases per 100,000 residents. Case activity has increased since the last report released a week prior, with 278 cases. 

As of December 2, between November 15 and 21, the county data on the number of administered average daily tests per 100,000 residents is unavailable, with the testing positivity rate unavailable as well. For the weeks prior (Nov. 8 through Nov. 14) 225 people on average were tested daily, with a 9.9% positivity rate. Positive test results should stay under two percent each week. 

New hospitalizations per 100,000 residents per week have occurred, with a daily count of 59 hospitalized with the coronavirus per week between Nov. 15 and 21, increasing from 49 from the two weeks prior. However, the county is meeting its mark with hospitalization, sitting at 78%, below the threshold of 80% of hospital beds occupied. 

Since January, Snohomish County has seen 13,910 coronavirus cases of which 268 died of COVID as of November 21.  Lynnwood has a total of 2,061 cases since January 2020 resulting in 32 deaths.

Erin Freeman

I graduated from Washington State University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a specialization in rhetoric and professional writing. I also received a minor in political science. I joined the Lynnwood Times in February of 2020. To me, community newspapers affirm a sense of community by connecting people through the coverage of local stories and current events.

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