Minnesota launches free app to alert users of COVID-19 exposure

Photo courtesy of the state of Minnesota.

Minnesota announced a free app on Monday that uses Bluetooth to track who users come in close contact with and automatically notifies them if they’ve been near someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

The new app, “COVIDaware MN,” comes as the state confronts among the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country, and many people are expected to get together for the Thanksgiving holiday. Last week Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order prohibiting most social gatherings and closing bars, restaurants and gyms for four weeks.

Data privacy is central to the app, whose success is dependent on people voluntarily using it. The app doesn’t ask for any personal information from its users, doesn’t use any location data and doesn’t keep information longer than 14 days.

If the state can convince many Minnesotans to download the app and quarantine when they’ve been alerted to a COVID-19 exposure, the app could help curb the spread of the virus without severe shutdown orders.

The app is built on technology developed by Apple and Google with the PathCheck Foundation and has already been deployed by other states including Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia, with more expected to follow. While each state has its own app, they all work together so a positive case from a Virginian will alert a Minnesotan, for example, if they come in contact with one another.

The way it works: The app uses Bluetooth to detect if there are any other users in the area. If two of the app’s users are within six feet of one another for 15 minutes, the phones exchange randomized codes, which change several times an hour.

When users test positive for COVID-19, they tell the app, and the app pings every user who’s been near them over the past two weeks. The app then advises people to quarantine while getting tested themselves. Users need a code from the Department of Health to record a positive COVID-19 test, so people may not submit fake positive results.

Within the first month of Colorado rolling out its app, it had more than one million downloads, a 17% adoption rate. A study from Oxford University found that if 15% of the population uses the app, it could reduce infections by about 8%.

The app’s extreme anonymity, however, comes with tradeoffs: Because location data and personal information aren’t recorded, health officials won’t be able to use it to identify outbreaks.

That may not matter, however, because the high rate of community spread has made traditional contact tracing done by health professionals extremely difficult and less valuable at curbing the spread of the virus.

You can download the app by clicking here.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.