Michigan rolls out COVID-19 exposure notification app

By: Sarah Wojcik | C&G Newspapers | Published November 19, 2020

Screenshot taken from the App Store

LANSING — MI COVID Alert is a new statewide COVID-19 exposure notification app that lets users know whether they might recently have been exposed to COVID-19. It uses randomly generated phone codes and low energy Bluetooth technology instead of GPS location to protect privacy.

The app, which was piloted in Ingham County and on the campus of Michigan State University in October, is anonymous, free and voluntary. It is available in the Apple and Google app stores on iPhone and Android mobile phones.

Users can confidentially submit a positive test result into the app and alert others in recent proximity that they may have also been exposed to the virus, according to a Michigan Department of Health & Human Services press release.

“COVID cases and deaths are now rising fast,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said in a prepared statement. “Using MI COVID Alert on your cell phone is a simple, safe step that everyone can take to protect themselves and their loved ones. It’s free, it’s easy, and it protects your privacy.”

Research from Oxford University found a potential to reduce infections and deaths, even if just 15% of a population uses an exposure notification app like MI COVID Alert, according to the press release.

During a Nov. 18 MDHHS press conference, MDHHS Director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo said more than 280,000 people have signed up, and Spanish and Arabic translations will be coming soon.

“This does not track your location, so this is not something … where it actually knows where you are on the planet,” she said. “All this app does is record which phones your phone may have been near if this other phone has this app downloaded as well.”

Lyon-Callo said local health departments will give individuals who have tested positive a code to enter into the MI Covid Alert app, the app identifies which phone numbers they have been near for 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, and then it sends an exposure push notification.

During the press conference, Gordon said contact tracing is much more difficult to conduct at locations such as restaurants and bars, where people may spend an hour, as opposed to construction sites and institutions, in which they have “core identification.”

In response to a question about how the MDHHS is funding hiring additional employees and other costs not in its budget, Gordon said the MDHHS has depended on federal dollars to supplement state dollars, particularly funding under the CARES Act that must be used by Dec. 30.

“Washington’s failure for months now to provide additional funding for the massive public health costs that we face is an enormous challenge for the department and the state,” he said.

During the press conference, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director of the MDHHS, added that the day a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine becomes available, it will only become available in limited quantities.

“It will only become available for those that the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has determined are the highest-risk populations,” Khaldun said. “That will start with health care providers, so it will be several months — well into 2021 — before that vaccine is even available or widely distributed to the general population.”

The app is part of the state’s continued efforts to slow the increasing spread of COVID-19.

“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,” said MSU Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Dr. Norman J. Beauchamp Jr. in a prepared statement.

The app is able to look back in time to determine close contact with other phones that have the app. App users will receive a notification once another user’s positive test is entered into the system; the notification means the app user was possibly within 6 feet — for at least 15 minutes — of someone who tested positive.

Those exposed to COVID-19 should get tested and consider quarantining, including watching for symptoms for 14 days from the date of possible exposure. To find a testing location nearby, visit michigan.gov/coronavirus; call the Michigan COVID-19 hotline at (888) 535-6136 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; or dial 211 on a mobile phone to locate and schedule an appointment at a nearby, off-campus testing location.

Other states, including Virginia, Arizona, New York, Alabama and New Jersey, recently launched similar statewide exposure notification apps, and additional states have apps in development, according to the release.

To find the latest information about the COVID-19 outbreak, visit michigan.gov/coronavirus and cdc.gov/coronavirus.