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Pennsylvania Prepares To Launch Coronavirus-Tracing App Next Month

PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) - Pennsylvania plans to launch a coronavirus exposure-notification app in early September in an effort to more quickly break chains of transmission by using the new technology to notify people who may have been exposed, officials said Monday. The state has a $1.9 million contract to deploy and maintain the app with software developer NearForm Ltd, the Ireland-based company whose app there has been downloaded by more than one-fourth of that country's residents.

The app is based on smartphone technology developed by Apple and Google, and will undergo a pilot project next week using state government employees and public health students, staff and faculty, officials told The Associated Press in an interview.

Drexel University has been using a similar COVID app called the Drexel Health Tracker for a couple of months.

"So we have a very good understanding of what's happening on our campus and among our community members," said Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs at Drexel University College of Medicine Dr. Charles Cairns.

He says their app provides situational awareness for users, including daily symptom tracking and there's interactive information.

The technology was developed by Apple and Google.

"We really developed this not only to provide information on symptoms but to make sure our students have appropriate info," Dr. Cairns said. "So people who are in high-risk groups will get a prompt to get testing as well as contact their physician."

Both the Drexel and state COVID apps are outfitted with a variety of security and privacy mechanisms.

"It was also developed to integrate testing protocols to integrate new treatment regimens and to follow people over time and location," said Dr. Cairns.

The Drexel app doesn't use geolocation to track users.

Different versions of the app are already in use in some locations, and in Ireland and Germany, about 30% of their populations have downloaded the app and officials say it has helped to contain the virus.

The app will be interoperable with the state of Delaware's app, and it also is expected to be interoperable with those of two other states, although Pennsylvania state officials declined to name those states because they are still in discussions with the app developer.

"The app is about Pennsylvanians helping Pennsylvanians. It's about, as a community, being able to let each other know and track each other's exposure so we can keep each other safe," said Health Department spokesperson April Hutcheson.

Its use will be limited to people 18 and over.

It is similar to the app rolled out by Virginia earlier this month, when it became the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google.

It is designed to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus, and state officials say the app does not store location information, personal information or the identity of anyone who is in close enough range to possibly be exposed.

It relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.

As a threshold, the app uses the Centers for Disease Control guideline of being within six feet for at least 15 minutes, said Meghna Patel, deputy secretary for health innovation at the Department of Health.

The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently, the companies have said.

Someone who tests positive in Pennsylvania is reported to either the Department of Health or a municipal health department agency and contacted by a case investigator. That case investigator will ask the infected person if they have the app and if they are willing to use it to notify any mobile-phone users who have been in close contact with them in the past 14 days, state officials said.

If they are willing to use it, they are given a six-digit code to enter to then issue a notification, state officials said. A person who receives a notification will get something like an alert to check the app, with instructions from the Department of Health on how to protect themselves and others, including information about staying at home, quarantining and seeking medical help.

In addition to exposure notification, the Pennsylvania app will have a data feature that allows the user to see up-to-date information on case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths by county, as well a feature that helps the user to monitor their symptoms even if they have not tested positive, Patel said.

CBS3's Stephanie Stahl contributed to this report.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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