September 19, 2021

December Update: COVID-19 Exposure Apps In the USA

December Update: COVID-19 Exposure Apps In the USA
December Update: COVID-19 Exposure Apps In the USA

In the final two months of 2020, national attention turned to election results and the final FDA approval of vaccines. Today in medical facilities, the cries for preventative measures still ring out as ICUs have reached critical mass with Covid-19 patients, and vaccines have begun the nascent stages of rollout. 

This article covers state-sponsored Covid19 exposure and contact-tracing apps launched in the US during November/December 2020. While the launch of exposure apps may appear to lack organization or cohesion, it is essential to remember that at a time when support from the federal government was needed, individual states were forced to create and fund individual solutions to a federal problem. 

In May of 2018, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, the senior White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic, left the administration. He was not replaced, and the global health security team he oversaw was disbanded. In March 2020, when Jared Kushner took over as head of an ad hoc White House pandemic task force, he announced to participants that “The federal government is not going to lead this response,” he announced. “It’s up to the states to figure out what they want to do.”

Those facts are worth bearing in mind when looking at the jagged timeline of responses between states. Attention to the presence of exposure and contact tracing APIs is still important, particularly as vaccines come available: the possibility of pivoting their use to tracking the use and availability of coronavirus vaccines could lie in the future of these apps.

This article covers state-sponsored apps launched to aid in contact-tracing and exposure to COVID-19 in the US in November and December of 2020. The dominant platform in use is still the Google/Apple Bluetooth Exposure Notification (GAEN), a decentralized system that allows nearby iOS and Android devices to exchange randomized and anonymous Bluetooth identifiers for use in later notifications of possible exposure. This system wraps together the original version released in May and the “Express” model launched in September.

The state of Maryland reversed the position taken by their state attorney general Brian Frosh earlier this year, launching MD Covid Alert on 10 November 2020. The app was built with the Apple-Google API and uses the established anonymous Bluetooth low-energy protocols. It does not appear to work between states yet.  More information is available on the Maryland website

The offices of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) announced the launch of the MI Covid Alert App. This app uses the established anonymous Bluetooth low-energy protocols with the Apple-Google API, and is interactive with the exposure apps in Virginia, Arizona, New York, Alabama, and New Jersey, and has hit 500,000 downloads so far. 

While Illinois has so far opted out of building a state-wide exposure or tracker app, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a notable exposure app called Safer Illinois which also allows students and employees to see where they can find COVID-19 testing sites, and get immediate updates to Covid-related news or changes in campus protocols.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the state of Minnesota announced the launch of COVIDaware MN. The launch of the app came a week after the release of an executive order from the governor of Minnesota announcing a month-long moratorium on social activity. Along with the GAEN platform, the platform was developed by the State of Minnesota and the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation. More information about the app can be found here

As predicted in earlier coverage, the District of Columbia also adopted an exposure notification app in October. The app, DC CAN, uses Exposure Notification Express, and comes with a list of states with which it is already interoperable, and the app makers hope to add Virginia and Maryland to that list soon. 

As the general public waits on access to the vaccine, coronavirus tracker apps will continue to proliferate, becoming interoperable between states, as the DC app (and others) already do. As the vaccine becomes more widely available, we will turn a weather eye to watch for any exposure apps being repurposed to track vaccinations or notify people of the upcoming availability of the vaccine.