ALBANY — The state unveiled a new smartphone application Thursday to alert New Yorkers who choose to download the tool when they’ve been in close proximity to someone who recently tested positive for COVID-19 as several downstate virus hot spots continue to increase.
App COVID Alert NY that notifies users of potential coronavirus exposure went live on the Apple App and Google Play stores Thursday to strengthen the state’s contact-tracing efforts.
The app, free to mobile users in the state 18 and older, alerts a person if he or she was within 6 feet of a person who recently tested positive for COVID-19 for 10 minutes or more.
“So it will tell you if you’re in contact with a COVID-positive person,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday during a conference call with reporters. “Testing is only as good as your contact tracing.”
The app, also launched as COVID Alert NJ in the neighboring state Thursday, uses Google and Apple Bluetooth technology. App downloads are free to mobile users 18 and older who live, work or attend college in either state, and is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, Russian and Haitian Creole — New York’s top six spoken languages.
The app does not collect users’ names or private information and is completely anonymous, according to Cuomo’s office. The app does not track location or use GPS location data and does not store personal information.
“It doesn’t give names or any privacy information; it’s voluntary,” Cuomo said. “I think it will not only bring contact tracing to a new level, but I think it’s going to give people comfort.”
The app’s Exposure Notification System uses Bluetooth Low Energy technology to measure proximity and detect when another phone with the same app is within 6 feet. COVID Alert app users must explicitly decide to turn exposure notifications on, and can turn them off anytime.
“The notification tool is an enhancement to the traditional contact tracing that the state is currently using,” said former governor’s secretary Larry Schwartz, a member of the state’s coronavirus task force. “We’ve been adding tools since May 15 to minimize community spread, which is the ultimate goal of contact tracing.”
Engineers conducted pilot tests with SUNY Albany, Plattsburgh and Oswego students and Columbia Engineering before the technology went live Thursday.
A similar app is also available in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Connecticut is expected to launch an Exposure Notification System in the next few weeks.
The tools operate across state lines, creating a regional COVID Alert app network to help stop the spread of the disease, according to the governor’s office.
Officials have worked for months to develop a technological tool to assist the 15,000 New Yorkers the governor dubbed “disease detectives” who work as COVID-19 contact tracers statewide.
The app was developed in partnership with Google, Apple and nonprofits Tech:NYC and the Linux Foundation with software developer NearForm.
Development cost $700,000 with assistance from Bloomberg Philanthropies, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s company. Bloomberg, a 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate, committed $10.5 million in April to help build and execute the state’s COVID-19 contact-tracing program.
Users who download the app do not enter personal information into the program. As a person with the app installed on their cellphone goes through the day, the app sends out a unique Bluetooth code called a key. Other phones running the app also record similar random contact codes, according to nearform.com.
The unique key code for each phone changes frequently to ensure security and remains anonymous.
“They have had the app and technology reviewed by a host of experts to make sure there’s no data breach possible,” Cuomo said.
The app logs codes of other app users each day who come in close proximity to each other, but users never know or are notified of each other’s codes. The information is only stored on individual devices, and is not shared with Apple, Google or other organizations, according to nearform.com.
If a user tests positive for COVID-19, the person can allow the app to share her unique key codes from the last two weeks, or one virus incubation period, as a confirmed positive case to give other users an exposure notification.
The app provides guidance and Health Department information about who to contact next to get a coronavirus test.
Users do not know who the app notifies, according to nearform.com.
Schwartz contacted various stakeholders including business organizations, labor unions, clergy and other groups to encourage communities to download the app.
“This helps protect them, but this also helps protect their family, their friends and their neighbors,” Schwartz said. “We went to great lengths with expert security people to review the application to make sure everything is confidential.”
The app announcement comes on the heels of spiking coronavirus hotspots in Brooklyn and Orange and Rockland counties in the Mid-Hudson region. Health officials continue to test residents in the 20 hot spot ZIP codes in the downstate metropolitan area, containing 26% of the state’s 1,382 new cases Thursday with an overall positive infection rate of 6.5%.
“That’s up from 5.5%,” Cuomo said, noting the 1 percentage point uptick in 24 hours. “These 20 hot spot ZIP codes require full attention and effectiveness and action. As I have said before, a cluster today can become community spread tomorrow.”
Testing tracked primary increases in Brooklyn, where ZIP code 11223 increased from 4% to 8% positivity Thursday and a surge of 3.8% to 7.4% in neighborhoods in ZIP code 11230.
The state reported the largest one-day spike in 10950 in Rockland County, which increased from 3% to 16% positive Thursday. ZIP code 10901 also surged from 4% to 12% positive Thursday.
“The Rockland numbers are small samples, so I take them with a grain of salt,” the governor said.
Cuomo repeated his Wednesday offer to appoint police to conduct enforcement and compliance in localities to assist local governments struggling to enforce the state’s COVID-19 mandates, including orders requiring New Yorkers to wear face masks in public when social distancing is impossible and to remain 6 feet apart.
“If they’re not wearing masks, there should be fines,” the governor said, “If you speed in your car, you get a ticket. That’s how enforcement works.”
The state Liquor Authority and New York State Police enforcement task force continue to inspect thousands of bars and restaurants and issue violations to establishments that fail to enforce patrons wear face masks or stay socially distanced. Seven downstate violations were issued Wednesday, with two in the Bronx, one in Manhattan and four in Suffolk County.
“And it works — bars and restaurants are not happy if they’re getting tickets,” Cuomo said. “I also understand that it worked, and that’s what I need the local governments to understand. They’re not doing the compliance in these hot spot ZIP codes and that’s why we have the problem.”
The public has received more than sufficient education about the importance of mask wearing, the governor said.
“I don’t think there’s been a topic in my lifetime that has been more exhaustively communicated to the public in terms of public health than mask wearing,” Cuomo added. “...We’re in this situation partially because local governments haven’t been doing the compliance and we need them to do it ... There should be enforcement. Enforcement works.”
Outside the Mid-Hudson region’s 2.8% positivity rate Thursday, the Capital Region, Southern Tier, Central New York, the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and North Country regions all reported low infection rates of 0.8% and lower Thursday.
The North Country has the state’s lowest infection rate at 0.1%.
The state reports 1,206 total active positive COVID-19 cases from teachers, students and staff in the 700-plus school districts statewide.
The state’s coronavirus positivity rate was 1.27% Thursday of 109,218 conducted COVID-19 tests. The state’s infection rate outside the 20 hot spot ZIP codes is 0.98%, or under the state’s goal of 1% infection rate, according to the governor’s office.
Eleven New Yorkers died from the virus Wednesday, up from nine Tuesday.
As of Thursday afternoon, 612 virus patients remain in hospitals in 38 counties — an increase of seven patients. Hospitalizations have continued to increase over the past several days. Patient numbers fluctuated around 500 for most of last week.