Millions of at-home COVID-19 tests are expected to be distributed over the coming days and make their way to anxious Washingtonians, just as the number of positive cases in the state soars to record highs. Yes, vaccinations, mask use and testing are key to helping prevent the coronavirus from spreading, but so is digital contact tracing.
To help each other, don’t overlook the state’s exposure notification app, WA Notify, as a valuable tool to fight the pandemic. Already, about 3 million people — roughly half of all smartphone users in the state — have enabled the application, which alerts users if they may have been exposed to the virus. About 2,000 new users are added every week, health officials said.
Nevertheless, the application’s effectiveness depends not only on the number of people who use it, but on those willing to anonymously report positive cases. While telling your phone that you have COVID can hardly be expected to be top of mind after a positive diagnosis, it can be an essential contribution to helping protect public health.
An early study by the University of Washington and modeling from Oxford, Stanford and Google — which along with Apple helped develop the technology the app uses — shows the benefits of using WA Notify. The UW study found the app likely prevented more than 5,000 COVID cases four months after it launched in November 2020, while modeling indicates that if 15% of the population in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties used the app, it could reduce infections by about 8% and deaths by about 6%.
Clear data on how many times the app has alerted users or how many people have been alerted remains muddled, in large part because of the privacy protections built into the system, said Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington’s deputy health secretary for COVID-19 response.
The app uses Bluetooth technology to determine proximity to other users. That information is stored in the phone itself and does not include any personal or location data. Anyone getting tested by a lab should receive an activation code they can then use to anonymously notify other users they may have been close to. If the positive result is from a home test, users can request a code from the app.
“The trade off there means we don’t have the type of evaluation data that a lot of people would like,” Fehrenbach said. “But we continue to hear anecdotes from people who get tested because they got an exposure notification or they take other action to protect themselves and others, and that really is the power of this tool.”
Washington can be proud that it is taking advantage of this technology — more than 20 states don’t use it at all, and WA Notify is at the forefront of allowing at-home test reporting — but a tool is only powerful if it is used.
If you haven’t enabled the app, do so today. And if you test positive, do your part and report.