Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing : Coronavirus Updates Virginia's new COVIDWISE app is designed to alert users who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. The app relies on Bluetooth to notify people who may be at risk.
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Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing

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Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing

Virginia Unveils App To Aid Contact Tracing

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The state of Virginia is wrestling with a dilemma of containing the coronavirus. Contact tracing is really valuable. If you find out you've been in contact with somebody who is sick, you can isolate yourself and protect other people. But some people are really uncomfortable with the idea of letting somebody trace their movements. They're skeptical about smartphone apps that would help do that, which is why Virginia is trying a different approach. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Virginia Beach on what's called exposure notification.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The coronavirus may not care about your politics, but your politics might shape the way you view the coronavirus, so Virginia health officials are taking their message straight to conservative talk radio audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RICHMOND'S MORNING NEWS")

JOHN REID: Right now, I want to welcome Dr. Norman Oliver.

MCCAMMON: Oliver is Virginia's state health commissioner. And on conservative talk shows like this one, hosted by John Reid in Richmond, Oliver has been talking up a new app called COVIDWISE. It relies on Bluetooth technology developed by Apple and Google to notify users if they've been within about 6 feet of another app user who's recently tested positive. Oliver stresses that's different than tracking, but Reid, like other conservatives in the state, is skeptical about that difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RICHMOND'S MORNING NEWS")

REID: I'm not trying to bash you, but I - that kind of worries me.

NORMAN OLIVER: Good question. It's a good question.

MCCAMMON: Oliver's appearance is part of a marketing campaign designed to reach audiences who might be resistant to downloading a type of technology that can be hard to understand and is being promoted by state officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RICHMOND'S MORNING NEWS")

OLIVER: And we don't want a device that tracks people.

MCCAMMON: Jeff Stover is with the Virginia Department of Health.

JEFF STOVER: We know that there's a trust in government issue in general, and that's not an easy nut to crack.

MCCAMMON: Stover's department hired David Saunders with the Richmond marketing firm Madison+Main to help get the message out. Saunders has been having private conversations with conservative politicians, candidates and other thought leaders explaining how the app works and asking them to consider getting on board.

DAVID SAUNDERS: So there's kind of two levels of mitigation. One is if they can't be a supporter, let me arm them with enough information so they don't actively oppose it.

MCCAMMON: According to Pew Research, Republicans are much less likely to see the virus as a major public health threat. Saunders' firm is also reaching out to communities of color, many of whom he says are skeptical of public health officials after long and ugly histories of government abuse.

Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, says there are many reasons people may be resistant to apps designed to help with contact tracing.

JOAN DONOVAN: And so a technology like this in its rollout has to gain an incredible amount of public trust on the front end before people download it, especially in the midst not just of COVID, but we're in a moment where people are very aware of surveillance technologies and the ways in which advertising and apps have linked up to serve them the wrong information.

MCCAMMON: For an exposure notification app to be most effective, researchers think they'd need more than half the population to download it. Virginia was the first to roll out its app statewide, and there's still a long way to go. Only about half a million of Virginia's 8.5 million residents downloaded it in the first month. But researchers estimate that for every one to two people who use the app, one new case could be avoided at a time when every case counts.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Virginia Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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