State rolls out anonymous, voluntary COVID tracking app

With Bluetooth technology used in about 20 other states, you're notified if you were within 6 feet of someone who tested positive
Photo credit Getty Images

Minnesota is launching an app that can tell you if you’ve been within six feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

COVID Aware MN is a partnership between the Department of Health, Minnesota IT Services, and the nonprofit Pathcheck Foundation. It’s completely voluntary, and does not collect data, personal information, or location. It works using bluetooth and is used in about 20 states.

Gov. Tim Walz explains how it works once you download the app through your iPhone or Android:

“I have exposure detection on and what happens is, if I go take a test, and the Health Department will give a code to show that I have it, I’ll put it in (to the app) and it will then notify everyone who was around me within a six-feet radius for 15 minutes or more, that they’ve been exposed,” Walz said. “There is no data tracking. There is no data collection. There is no data sent to the Minnesota Department of Health, to Google, to Apple to anyone. It is simply a random key that’s generated that guarantees privacy, but gives you another tool to know.

“So you were on that patio and you were eating and you don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned, you could get a notification.”

COVID Aware MN does not say who, where or specifically when the potential exposure occurred, but it gives a time frame, allowing folks who receive a notification to isolate and get a test within five to seven days to prevent transmission.

“Typically, we have to rely on a person remembering who they may have been in contact with and the places they visited while they were infectious,” State Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said. “Oftentimes that’s difficult and sometimes people have been in a situation where they can’t remember or they don’t know the people they may have been in close proximity to them. With this exposure app, Minnesotans can anonymously warn people they don’t know but may have been in close contact with about a potential exposure.”

It bears repeating that the app does not collect location, personal information or data. It does not ask for permission to use location like say your weather app does, and operates through Google or Apple’s exposure notification interface—data that’s not accessible to the state. MDH does confirm the positive test as part of its contact tracing efforts.

“If you install the app, at no point in time does it ask you for any identifying information,” MNIT commissioner Tarek Tomes said. “It never accesses personal information on your phone, such as your contact information and doesn’t require you to provide any additional information.”

Ehresmann said if you receive a notification from the app that you may have been exposed to self-isolate, then get a test to account for the incubation period.

“Even if you have negative test results, however, you’ll need to stay in quarantine,” she said. “The reason for that as we’ve talked about is the incubation period is 14 days. If you happen to test negative on day five that means you still have the rest of the incubation period to potentially become positive and infectious. The app will  give you a range of time when you may have been exposed to help you with your decision-making on quarantine.”

Minnesota is set to reach 300,000 total confirmed cases this week, just a couple weeks after it surpassed 200,000. The state’s seven-day positivity rate is 15.2 percent. It lags by week, but it’s up from the prior week of 13.7 percent.

Minnesota officials say with just 10 to 15 percent opt-in of the app, it will have an effect.

“Certainly it is in all of our collective best interests, if we trust this, if we look into the data privacy and feel that, ‘Wow, it doesn’t ask my identity, it doesn’t track my location, it’s really easy to install,’ and we share that with friends and neighbors as a mechanism, then we can collectively get to that 10 to 15 percent where we already have benefit,” Tomes said. “Each adoption along the way, everyone that brings a phone to this fight against COVID-19 in addition to that, really can provide a powerful opportunity to continue to suppress the spread.”