RALEIGH — Slowing the spread of COVID-19 is not translating well as an app, according to numbers obtained by North State Journal with around 540,000 downloads since launching three months ago.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) rolled out the state’s virus notification app called SlowCOVIDNC on Sept. 22, just a little over seven months into the pandemic. The app is designed to alert the user if they have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Around a week to two weeks after the rollout of the app, both Apple and Android users in North Carolina were receiving push notifications from the Google Play Store and Apple iTunes store encouraging them to download the app.
Following receipt of a push notification on Oct. 5, North State Journal looked at the download numbers of the app on both Google Play and Apple iTunes. At that time, Google had recorded only 50,000 downloads and the Apple downloads were around half that.
Questions about the SlowCOVIDNC app, including downloads, privacy of data, security and costs were sent to NCDHHS. Kelly Haight Connor, NCDHHS Communications Manager, responded to North State Journal’s inquiries.
An Oct. 23 response received from NCDHHS said the app had been downloaded “249,000 times (iOS=127,543; Android=151,833).”
“Currently, there have been 69 individuals who have notified others of their positive test result. The app has sent a total of 421 exposure notifications to date,” Haight wrote in the response.
Google’s downloads showed a non-specific total of “100,000+” downloads as of Nov. 5.
North State Journal checked in with NCDHHS on Dec. 14 and was told both the download number and notifications had increased. The app has currently been downloaded more than 540,700 times. She also said in an email to North State Journal that 345 individuals have notified others of their positive test results and that the app has sent a total of 1,225 exposure notifications to date.
The number of North Carolina’s citizens using the app is similar to that of other states, according to a report by the Associated Press that included data from 16 states, Guam and the District of Columbia. That data revealed that as of the end of November, only 8.1 million people had utilized contact notification apps like SlowCOVIDNC. That translates to roughtly one in 14 of the 110 million residents in those regions.
“Virginia’s COVIDWISE app launched on Aug. 5 and was the first to go live. Since then, fewer than one in ten residents have downloaded it, though the state estimates almost 20% of Virginians between the ages of 18 and 65 with a smartphone have done so,” the Associated Press report states.
SlowCOVIDNC’s price tag
In terms of cost, Haight said that SlowCOVIDNC had an initial investment cost of $360,000 with third party support and monthly operations costs of $15,000. Not including any possible prorated charges for September, the state will have incurred at least $45,000 in operations costs by the end of December.
The total cost to date divided by the current 540,700 downloads works out to be around $1.34 per download.
“Apple and Google developed the base code for the application and made it available to public health authorities at no cost, which allowed us to customize the application to allow for seamless integration with our existing contact tracing infrastructure,” wrote Haight about the cost of the app.
When asked how long the app will be used for or if there was an end date for its use, Haight wrote that the app will be “available through the duration of the pandemic.” She said that once the pandemic is declared over, the app will be shut down.
According to the FAQ for the app, NCDHHS owns it. That ownership raised the question of what kind of data the app might be generating for NCDHHS.
According to NCDHHS’ Sept. 22 press release, the app is “completely anonymous” and “does not collect, store or share personal information or location data.”
“The only data available from the app is anonymous, aggregate data concerning number of downloads, number of times tokens are uploaded and number of times exposure notifications are sent,” Haight wrote.
In the SlowCOVIDNC specifications, the app relies on Bluetooth. Earlier this year, it was reported that android phones are very susceptible to hacking via Bluetooth. North State Journal asked about how the app would protect user data.
“The platform on which the app has been built has been purposefully constructed by the respective mobile operating system providers to ensure the integrity and security of the interface,” wrote Haight.
Haight also referenced Google’s COVID19 exposure notifications and privacy information which says “only public health authorities will be able to use this system.” Those officials have to meet “specific criteria around privacy, security, and data use.”
“The system does not share your identity with other users, Apple, or Google. Public health authorities may ask you for additional information, such as a phone number, to contact you with additional guidance,” Google exposure notification and privacy information page reads.
Haight reiterated that privacy information in her response, writing that “SlowCOVIDNC does not collect or share personally identifying or location information, but does share information about the date of potential exposures.”
She also said that SlowCOVIDNC never accesses your location and that eh Exposure Notification System is based on Bluetooth technology and does not collect any geolocation or GPS data.
Haight further described how the app works and keeps users anonymous.
“After opting-in to receive notifications, the app will generate an anonymous token for your device. A token is a string of random letters that changes every 10-20 minutes and is never linked to your identity or location, but is linked to date. This protects your privacy and security,” wrote Haight. “Through Bluetooth, your phone and the phones around you with the SlowCOVIDNC app work in the background to exchange these anonymous tokens every few minutes. Phones record how long they are near each other and the Bluetooth signal strength of their exchanges in order to estimate distance.”
The app is “opt-in” meaning that one has to choose to download and use the app. Additionally, once downloaded a person who tests positive can then obtain a unique PIN to submit in the app.
“This voluntary and anonymous reporting notifies others who have downloaded the app that they may have been in close contact with someone in the last 14 days who has tested positive,” Haight said in her response. “PINs will be provided to app users who receive a positive COVID-19 test result through a web-based PIN Portal, by contacting the Community Care of North Carolina call center, or by contacting their local health department.”
According to Haight, the SlowCOVIDNC app periodically downloads tokens from the server from the devices of users who have anonymously reported a positive test. The person’s phone then uses its records of the “signal strength and duration of exposures with those tokens to calculate risk.” The app uses that information to determine if a person meets the threshold to receive an Exposure Notification.
For more information on the SlowCOVIDNC app, visit https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/slowcovidnc/.