Use your smartphone to help contain the pandemic

Washington’s new smartphone-based alert system for COVID-19 exposure arrived as promising news Nov. 30. By the start of this week, more than 1.2 million device users had activated the free, privacy-protecting service. More should do so.

The WA Notify exposure alerts will not rid the state of coronavirus. But the system is a tool that sometimes can alert people exposed to self-quarantine and seek testing. And that could limit the contagion’s spread. The more people use it on their phones, the more effective it will be.

Until a vaccine becomes widely available, WA Notify is among the arsenal of pandemic-limiting mechanisms, such as masks and social distancing, members of the public should try. Business restrictions have been difficult for many. Contact tracing is labor-intensive.

But joining WA Notify requires little effort for smartphone users. Those with iPhones can simply change a setting. Android phone users can download it free from the Google app store. Users in more than a dozen other states and 30 countries are doing likewise.

“We really need to bring whatever tools we can to help,” said UW epidemiology professor Janet Baseman, who worked on the statewide rollout. “So if we have a theoretical basis for this to be successful, and we’ve seen it roll out in other places, and it’s been done in a privacy-preserving way, why wouldn’t we want to bring this new technology to our communications in Washington if it can give us an assist?”

The potential upside is significant. Modeling by researchers from Google and Oxford University predicted that 15% participation in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties could reduce infections and deaths by close to 10%. The 950,000 users who turned on the app in its first three days statewide amount to 17.5% of Washington’s residents over 15 years old.

WA Notify comes with credible assurances that privacy is well-protected, but the fine details of its privacy protections are worth knowing. It uses Bluetooth to exchange randomized codes with other cellphones it spends a few minutes within range of. Locations, names and phone numbers aren’t shared. Once a person who tests positive enters a health department-provided code, an alert pings the cellphones that were in proximity during the last two weeks.

The “slow the spread” mantra of these long months must not lose resonance until everyone can get vaccinated. This alert carries the potential to save lives, which makes it worth trying. Add your phone to the fight today.