App launched in Michigan to alert people exposed to virus

LANSING — The state health department and Michigan State University on Thursday launched a voluntary smartphone app to notify people if they have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus, a step toward potentially taking the technology statewide.

MI COVID Alert, which is available for download, is starting as a pilot in the Lansing area. A person testing positive for the virus is given a PIN by contact tracers that allows them to share their result anonymously on the app, which uses cellphone location information and Bluetooth technology.

Other app users who possibly were within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of the infected person for at least 15 minutes are notified and urged to monitor for symptoms, be tested and self-isolate. They are not told who tested positive.

States such as New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, Alabama and Rhode Island have launched similar apps.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the technology is an additional way to contain COVID-19 besides traditional tracing efforts, masking and social distancing. He said everyone in Ingham County — including at MSU — should download the app and turn it on, but people in the rest of the state are free to, as well.

“We can learn and refine it in a community that is excited about it before we take it statewide,” Gordon said in a phone interview, saying it is important that a “meaningful critical mass” sign up for the technology to be effective. “The app has been designed to be very protective of privacy.”

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. said traditional tracing is a very important tool, but it is not perfect because of people’s memories and the fact that it can take a number of days to complete. The school may consider requiring the app’s use in the spring semester or later, Stanley said.

“We’re very excited about it, very proud that the state of Michigan has asked us to do this with them,” he said. “It really does offer people (a chance) to get engaged in a way that will make a big difference.”

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