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Wisconsin expected to release contact tracing app in December

(NBC15)
Published: Dec. 1, 2020 at 10:06 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WKOW) - The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is developing a new program to help with contact tracing in the state.

A DHS spokesperson tells Action 2 News’ Madison ABC affiliate WKOW the state has started working with Apple and Google to develop an exposure notification application.

As the virus has spread rapidly across the state this fall, DHS has struggled to hire enough contact tracers to properly track who is at risk of getting sick.

Earlier this fall, many local health departments moved to a crisis model of contact tracing, where staff members are not able to reach out to every person who has had close contact with someone who tests positive.

Sauk County’s public health nurse manager Jessie Phalen says two months after that, things have only gotten worse.

“With the rise in cases, we are not even able to contact all of our positive cases anymore,” Phalen said. “We are doing our best but it is a very challenging thing to accomplish with the number of cases we have.”

Wisconsin’s COVID-19 notification app is expected to be released in mid to late December.

“We are working through details and specifics but are excited to be able to bring to bear an additional tool for our contact tracing efforts,” said DHS Secretary Andrea Palm, at a news conference Tuesday.

At least 15 other states have similar cell phone apps that offer pop-up notifications if you were close to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The contact tracing apps use Bluetooth to ping constantly-changing codes of nearby phones. When someone who uses the feature tests positive for the virus, they get a pin from a health official to enter into their phone. Any other phones nearby in the previous two weeks will then get an alert.

Experts say the apps are private and anonymous. They don’t collect data on users or their location.

The Wisconsin app will be similar to what’s being used in Colorado, Maryland and Washington, according to DHS officials.

Phalen says the program will need to ensure privacy and accuracy, but could make a difference as they continue trying to reach people who could be at risk of getting the coronavirus.

“Potentially, it could be a nice adjunct to what us at the local level are doing, depending on the caveats of the application,” Phalen said. “Anything that would be helpful and help some patients get notified sooner, I would certainly be interested in learning more about.”

In the meantime, Sauk County Health Department is in the process of hiring a few more disease investigators to help ease the workload on contact tracers. The county has 12 right now and five public health nurses who are also helping with the process.

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