Pa. announces contact tracing app
The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed Tuesday plans to release a “COVID-19 exposure notification app” in September, designed to assist with contact tracing.
“We will be able to provide the COVID Alert PA application to Pennsylvania beginning in September,” said state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. “This app uses Bluetooth technology to let a person know that they have been exposed to COVID-19 without compromising their identity or their location.”
The app is part of Pennsylvania’s larger containment strategy, Levine said, which relies on increased testing, paired with contact tracing.
“If someone is positive through those tests, that’s where our case investigators come in,” Levine said.
The state has hired over 1,200 case investigators tasked with contacting people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, telling them to quarantine and finding out who else they’ve come into contact with.
“This app will be one part of that process that we’ve been describing, and one piece of the puzzle to help contain the spread,” Levine said.
The app — which was developed in partnership with experts at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and developer NearForm — uses “exposure notification technology” developed by Apple and Google to track whether or not users have come within six feet of someone who’s tested positive for COVID for 15 minutes or more. That information can then be used to improve contact tracing.
“Otherwise we might not be able to do that,” Levine said. “So it’s really going to enhance the work of the case investigators and the contact tracers. It does not replace that in any way.”
Levine emphasized that the app is anonymous and voluntary, and won’t store individuals’ specific location.
“I know that people are concerned about that — that the government is somehow tracking their location,” Levine said. “It does not do that.”
Vaccines could be available by the beginning of 2021; Philly will prioritize vulnerable and minority populations
In the global race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, three frontrunners have pulled ahead — Moderna, BioNTech, and Oxford-AstraZeneca — and could be ready in a matter of months.
“I am optimistic,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “I do expect that we will have a vaccine that is proven safe and effective to offer sometime in the first few months of 2021.”
With dozens of potential vaccines in the works, Farley said, we might even have multiple vaccines available. (Farley emphasized the importance of adequate testing, amid concerns over Russia’s fast-tracked vaccine: “People should not be given a vaccine outside of a research study, unless it is proven to be safe and effective,” he said. “Here in Philadelphia, we will wait until we have those studies to demonstrate that vaccines are safe and effective.”)
Despite that, he said, we should anticipate limited availability of whatever vaccine is approved.
“And so we will set a priority for who gets those vaccinations on the people who need it the most, so that we can save the most severe cases and prevent the most deaths,” Farley said.
He added that national experts have already begun to identify groups that should be prioritized — among them are vulnerable people, including the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions; and caregivers and medical staff.
“But because the virus also affects minority populations harder, at every step we will make sure that they’re particularly available to African Americans and other groups that have been most impacted by the virus,” Farley said.
Philadelphia could be one of the country’s first cities to receive available vaccines. The city was recently asked, along with four states, to draft a vaccine distribution plan to share with the CDC, in order to help other locales figure out their own plans.
Farley says distribution sites could include nursing homes, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, community clinics, and even free-standing vaccination sites. All will need to be connected with the city’s central immunization registry.
“There’s much to be worked out, but still — it’s exciting to be thinking through this right now, because ultimately this is the way to end this epidemic,” Farley said.
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