Why Missourians can’t receive COVID notifications on their phone

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JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — What if your phone could tell you, you’ve been exposed to COVID-19?

With everything our phones can do, it’s no surprise it can warn of a COVID-19 exposure.

There’s an app for that, but not in Missouri or surrounding states. The app being used in about 20 other states send an alert to your phone that you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and you should go get a test. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services says the state isn’t using it because of privacy.

The app is available for both Apple and Android phones. Chief Information Security Officer for Blade Technologies in St. Louis Scott Schaffer says both companies have “built-in exposure notifications functionality.”

“So, let’s say you’re walking down the street and you have your exposure app turned on and I have my exposure app turned on, we pass each other on the street,” Schaffer said. “Our phones talk to one another and exchange a little handshake by Bluetooth.”

Schaffer said if the person you passed tests positive for COVID-19, you get an alert.

“A week later I find out I have COVID, while my app keeps track of everyone, I’ve encountered in the last 14 days and it pushes an alert out to you saying, ‘hey you may have been exposed to COVID, go get a test,'” Schaffer said. “No personal information is exchanged. It’s basically just a little code.”

According to Apple, users who have been diagnosed with COVID can report it as well as anonymously notify others who have been in close contact. If someone has been exposed, the individual could be notified by the public health authority.

You can find the app in setting for both Android and Apple. If you try to turn the app on in Missouri, you’ll get a screen that says notifications are not currently available.

Schaffer said the app does not tell you who tested positive, where you were when the exposure happened or what time it was. It only informs you; you were exposed.

“Some states have decided not to invest any time or effort into it, some states have,” Schaffer said. “It’s the responsibility of each state’s health department and that’s the way it was rolled out.”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services declined to go on camera but sent a statement instead saying:

“The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services weighed the pros and cons of various technology platforms associated with tracking the possible transmission of COVID-19 from person to person. Early efforts at these technologies were found to be exceptionally invasive to the personal privacy of citizens and were not adopted for use by the state. These systems have continued to evolve and adopt more appropriate protections including opt-in features, anonymous randomizations, and other key features. DHSS has continued to monitor these systems and does not intend to implement or endorse one option over others. Local communities or institutions interested in using these systems should ensure they adequately protect and secure any information collected on any Missouri citizens and should include an opt-in feature to be selected by each participant.”

Schaffer believes an app like this is safe and helpful.

“If it’s designed correctly, it’s absolutely safe,” Schaffer said. “In face, with the under pinning’s already being written by Android and Apple, you would really have to work at it to be able to expose any personal information.”

He said the problem is there’s not one app for the entire country.

“Let’s say you live in Kansas City, you have Missouri on one side and Kansas on the other,” Schaffer said. “Let’s say you’re walking on the street and somebody from Kansas passes you and has COVID, their app is not going to talk to your Missouri app, so you’re not going to get that information. That’s a downside of it. Every state having a different app or having a different way of doing this, the states can’t talk.”

In the Midwest, the only states who use the app are Michigan and North Dakota.

Schaffer said it would take a state about 30 days to create an app. DHSS does not intend to implement an app in Missouri.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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