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App to help slow spread of coronavirus goes live on Maui

  • A screenshot of the AlohaSafe Alert app which is free on Apple Store or Google Play.

    A screenshot of the AlohaSafe Alert app which is free on Apple Store or Google Play.

Maui County announced the official launch of the AlohaSafe Alert app on Thursday, saying it is the first county in the state to do so in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The app, which is free on Apple Store or Google Play, is designed to alert users if they have been exposed to the new coronavirus using Bluetooth technology. It was pilot tested on Lanai and in Hana in November. It was developed by the state Department of Health, aio Foundation, Hawaii Executive Collaborative and others.

So far, Maui County says there have been more than 7,000 downloads of the app.

“This free exposure notification app has already undergone successful pilot testing on Lanai and in Hana, and we are pleased to have it expanded to everyone in Maui County to increase detection of the virus and slow the spread of the disease,” Mayor Michael Victorino said in a news release. “The AlohaSafe app helps people know that they might have been exposed to the virus and should consider getting tested as soon as possible. This is especially important now as our community awaits the broad distribution of the vaccine against the virus.”

The app’s launch is part of a nationwide effort. A total of 17 U.S. states, including California, Washington, and the District of Columbia are participating in the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system, with their own versions of the app. In California, the app is known as CA notify, and in Washington as WA Notify.

After the app is downloaded, the smartphone uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously communicate with other phones that have a GAEN application. Devices with app will automatically “ping” each other, measuring the strength of the Bluetooth signal and the duration of interaction.

If a person becomes infected with COVID-19, a Department of Health contact tracer will send him or her a verification code to anonymously notify others of possible exposure.

The notification will be triggered if phones were in proximity to one another in the past 14 days, at a distance of 6 feet or less for at least 15 minutes cumulative.

The AlohaSafe Alert app is able to communicate with any app on the GAEN system, officials said.

According to Star-Advertiser Tech View columnist Ryan Ozawa, the app does not know the identity of the person using the phone, but it knows whether phones were in close proximity.

“Not only does it not know who you are, it doesn’t care where you are, either,” wrote Ozawa in a September column. “Instead, it keeps track of other smartphones that it has been near based on anonymized Bluetooth signals.”

But the app is only useful if people in Hawaii use it, said Ozawa.

According to officials, privacy is protected. No personal data ever leaves the phone unless the owner chooses to share the information with the state Health Department. User identities are also protected. Persons receiving notifications will not know who or where they may have been exposed.

Victorino said Maui County has been pushing for such technological advances for the protection of its residents and visitors.

“We urge people to download this app, because widespread use of this technology by residents and visitors alike would make it most effective in our fight against this disease,” Victorino said. “AlohaSafe Alert is a powerful example of our community coming together so that Maui County and our state can move toward a healthier future.”

The app is compatible with Androids Version 6 or above and iPhones with OS 13.7 or greater. It does not work on iPads or tablets.

“We’re thankful for the partnership and support from Mayor Victorino and Maui County leaders because adoption of the app by residents will be key to maximizing the potential of AlohaSafe Alert,” said Lynelle Marble, executive director of Hawaii Executive Collaborative, in the news release. “Based on studies from the University of Oxford, for every two app users, one infection can be avoided. Our hope is that our residents will take the opportunity to use AlohaSafe Alert as an additional layer of safety to help mitigate the spread of the virus.”

More information is available at alohasafealert.org.

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