New smartphone feature allows for anonymous reporting of COVID exposure in Alaska

Kenrick Mock, a University of Alaska Anchorage computer science professor, shows how to use the Alaska COVID ENX feature. (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

With the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly in Alaska, contact tracing is increasingly difficult. A new feature for Alaska smartphones could help.

The service COVID ENX was developed by Apple and Google to allow users to anonymously report that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

Kenrick Mock is a computer science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who’s part of the team that optimized the feature for Alaska phones.

“If you’ve got an Apple iPhone, and it’s kind of recent, then it’s already baked into the operating system,” Mock said. “All someone would have to do is go to their settings, and there’s a setting for exposure notifications, and all they would have to do is turn it on.”

From there, the feature uses Bluetooth to connect with other phones nearby that have the function activated. A random code is generated and sent automatically and anonymously to nearby phones, where it’s saved for 14 days.

“If someone tests positive for COVID, then what they can do is they can share their positive test,” Mock said. “And when they do that, it’s anonymous. It doesn’t link back to them or say it was their phone or anything like that. And then based on the exchange of those random codes, other phones that had contact with the person that shared their diagnosis will be notified that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.”

Mock said users are then directed to state resources for testing and isolating. While he said the app removes some of the contact tracing strain from health care workers, it doesn’t send the positive result to the state database.

Mock said it wouldn’t ping every nearby phone, just ones that meet a typical COVID exposure threshold — within six feet for more than 15 minutes. He said a good example is a movie theater.

“You’re sitting in a theater for maybe two hours and you don’t know who these people are that might be near you,” Mock said. “One of them might test positive and if they share their diagnosis, then you could get notified and know that you should get tested.”

For Apple users, Mock said they need to have at least the iOS 14.4 software update to have the feature work on their phone. For Android users, an app for Alaska COVID ENX is rolling out next week in the Play store.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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