State health officials, developers officially launch COVID-19 exposure app

Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. –  The GuideSafe Exposure Notification App is officially available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Supported by CARES Act funding, the GuideSafe Exposure Notification App was built by UAB and Birmingham-based MotionMobs in active collaboration with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and integrating Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System (ENS).

The app was initially available only to .edu email address holders during a recent pilot phase, but can now be downloaded for free by any Alabamian with an iPhone or Android device.

“This is an exciting day for all Alabamians, and we appreciate Governor Kay Ivey for providing us with the funding used to help put this statewide effort in place,” said Dr. Karen Landers with ADPH. “This tool will arm us with the power to inform ourselves and those around us of potential exposure to COVID-19 safely and securely, which will be powerful as we move forward in combatting the virus.”

Alabama is one of the first states in the U.S. to launch Google and Apple’s joint technology to the general public.

The app essentially works as follows:

  • Once the GuideSafe Exposure Notification App is downloaded to an iPhone or Android device, users will opt-in to the notification system through a few simple steps.
  • The app never records location or identity or accesses your contact list. Instead, the app generates a random code for each user phone. This random code then changes every 10 to 20 minutes to preserve security. 
  • As users go about their day, all phones utilizing the GuideSafe Exposure Notification App that are in close contact – defined as within six feet for greater than 15 minutes –of others will exchange these random codes via low-energy Bluetooth.
  • This exchange works even if the app is in the background so that users can continue to use their phones for other tasks.
  • When a self-reported and lab-verified positive COVID-19 test occurs, ADPH enables notification of all phones through a random code matching process using the last 14 days of data.
  • If there is a match, the GuideSafe app will notify a user and facilitate assistance from ADPH, as well point users toward other tools in the GuideSafe™ platform.   

UAB officials say the success of the app depends on Alabamians downloading and actually using it.

“Only working together can we defeat COVID-19, and the GuideSafe Exposure Notification app is a step in that direction,” explained Sue Feldman, professor and director of graduate programs in health informatics at UAB.

Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said more specifically, the app has to be used by a fairly large percentage of citizens to have any impact.

“There’s still a pocket of people who don’t think its serious enough to follow the rules and they’re going to do what they do, and they’re going to spread COVID,” he explained. “If they aren’t participating in the app its worthless.”

Landers said the app is not exactly what some people think it is.

“This is not a contact tracing app,” she said. “But it will allow us information related to knowing who has been exposed as far as persons being aware of potential exposure.”

UAB officials said the app doesn’t collect any personal data and therefore can’t be used in ADPH’s contact tracing efforts. It simply enhances the process by manually allowing users to tell the app, and subsequently others, they’ve tested positive for the virus.

The app uses your phone number to create an encrypted code.

“It scrambles it into something that can’t be unscrambled,” explained Feldman. “Then it deposits that into like think of like an escrow account or like a container and it just sits.”

That’s until ADPH confirms your test is positive, the system then generates an identical code. When the two codes match, only then does the exposure app send notifications to those with the app who you’ve been around.

“And remember that’s 15 minutes or longer at six feet or fewer,” Feldman added.

Users will never know from whom the notification came or to whom the notification has been sent, nor the time or the location – only the date of the possible exposure. 

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