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New Nevada app detects close encounters with COVID

Updated August 25, 2020 - 7:49 am

The state launched an app on Monday aimed at improving COVID-19 contact tracing by detecting close encounters while keeping privacy intact.

Once the user downloads the app, the COVID Trace app detects other nearby phones with the app, then provides notification if another user who came into close proximity tests positive for COVID-19. The app, built on technology by Apple and Google, does this while maintaining anonymity and without capturing personal information, according to its developers and state health officials.

The purpose of contact tracing is to alert the close contacts of a person newly diagnosed with COVID-19 that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and should self-quarantine to avoid spreading the disease. Traditional methods of contact tracing rely on people remembering with whom they were in close contact around the time they became infected. Nevada, like much of the country, has struggled to provide notification of possible infection in a timely manner because of high volumes of cases.

“COVID Trace helps us notify people, even if the infected person does not know them personally, can’t remember the interaction, or does not know how to contact them,” said Julia Peek, deputy administrator with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is all done completely anonymously, and without the application capturing any information about who you are or who you have been hanging out with,” Peek said in a Friday afternoon briefing with reporters.

How it works

The COVID Trace app uses Bluetooth technology to exchange random codes with nearby phones, according to the state’s Nevada Health Response website. To help ensure these codes can’t be used to identify a person or location, they change every 10 to 20 minutes.

A code is “not attached to your name, where you’ve been, or any other piece of information,” said Dudley Carr, one of the COVID Trace developers. “They’re just literally random little numbers that are exchanged.”

Each day, the app checks a list of the codes, notifying a user if codes match and an app user who came into close proximity tested positive.

For COVID-19 contact-tracing purposes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a close contact as anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated. For patients without symptoms, the period is two days prior to the patient getting tested for the coronavirus.

The app’s calculation for close contacts is more complex and takes a cumulative approach for the day, Carr said. It takes into account, for example, if two people were closer than 6 feet but for fewer minutes or farther away for more minutes.

Companies encourage app use

A half-dozen other states already have launched similar apps using the Google and Apple notification technology.

Companies who are encouraging their employees to use the COVID Trace app include the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Las Vegas Raiders, Caesars Entertainment Corp., MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts Ltd., The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Boyd Gaming Corp., Vegas Chamber, Allegiant Air, R&R Partners, Top Rank and NV Energy, as well as some counties and cities, according to a news release on the app’s launch.

The more people who use the app, the more effective it will be, officials said. They encouraged Nevada residents and visitors to download it.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for Nevadans and our visitors to do one more thing to continue the fight against COVID, to protect themselves and move Nevada to reopening fully again,” Peek said.

COVID Trace is available for iPhone and Android. For more information, visit nvhealthresponse.nv.gov/covidtrace.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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