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Virginia just launched a coronavirus exposure notification app. Here's how it works

The Covidwise app will aid in contact tracing in the Commonwealth.

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Department of Health launched its coronavirus exposure notification app, called Covidwise, on Thursday. The app, developed by SpringML is the first in the nation to use the framework developed by tech giants Apple and Google.

The Covidwise app is free to download on the Apple and Google Play stores. Once a user opts into the notification system, it uses Bluetooth-based technology to determine whether app users may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Privacy was a major concern when developing the app. 

“[Privacy is] at the core of what we do as an agency,” Jeff Stover with the Virginia Department of Health said. "The most important thing is that you know whether or not you've been exposed."

To address those privacy concerns, the exposure notifications system will generate an anonymous token for your device. To help ensure these anonymous tokens can't be used to identify you or your location, they change every 10-20 minutes. 

Your phone and the phones around you will work in the background, without draining your battery or data, to exchange these privacy-preserving anonymous tokens via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. 

This is a passive process that begins once you opt-in and functions without the app open. 

“We’re using every possible approach to fight this virus and keep Virginians healthy,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a prepared statement provided to The Associated Press.

On a daily basis, your phone downloads a list of all the anonymous tokens associated with positive COVID-19 cases and checks them against the list of anonymous tokens it has encountered in the last 14 days. If there's a match, you'll receive a notification.

The app includes a Virtual VDH section, so you can figure out the next steps if you receive a notification.

"It doesn't know where you are, it doesn't know where you are," Stover said.

Positive results go through a verification process at VDH, and users are given a unique PIN, so false reports are not possible.

Officials who worked on the app made clear that the app is not a contact tracing app, but it will aid the contact tracing effort in the Commonwealth.

The hope is that downloading the app will lead to a decline in cases. Stover the hope is that for every person who downloads the app, they will see a decline in one coronavirus case. 

Virginia has seen a recent uptick in coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday, more than 95,000 Virginians have contracted the virus. 

The app is available for download here.

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