County: COVID-19 app won’t be mandatory for travelers

  • A screenshot of the alohasafealert.org website.

Hawaii County has no plans to make the state’s official COVID-19 exposure notification application mandatory on the Big Island.

The AlohaSafe Alert app, developed in partnership with the state Department of Health, the aio Foundation and the Hawaii Executive Collaborative, warns users if they have had extended contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Since the app’s launch last month, more than 52,000 people in Hawaii have downloaded the app.

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Earlier this month, Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino announced that, beginning earlier this week, any party of travelers arriving on Maui must have at least one person who has the AlohaSafe Alert app downloaded on a personal cellphone.

However, Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Talmadge Magno said Friday that the county currently has no plans to implement similar requirements for travelers to the Big Island.

“The counties are doing their own things,” Magno said. “We’ve already got our second (post-flight) testing program, and Maui doesn’t have that.”

Magno said the county is directing its COVID-related efforts toward testing and vaccination distribution, rather than the rollout of the app.

The app uses a phone’s Bluetooth function to send signals to other phones with AlohaSafe Alert installed. When two devices with the app are in close proximity, they exchange an anonymous code — “gibberish,” aio Digital President Brandon Kurisu explained in a livestream interview earlier this week.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, the Department of Health will send the user a verification code they can type into the app. By doing so, every other app user who had contact with the infected user for 15 minutes or longer will receive an alert they may have been exposed to the virus. The app does not track a user’s location or identify anyone.

Unfortunately, because the app uses Bluetooth and not GPS, there are currently no data about how many people on each island have downloaded the app, Lynelle Marble, executive director of the Hawaii Executive Collaborative, said Friday.

“But, when the app became available on the Big Island, there was a spike of about 1,500 downloads, so we assume those were on the Big Island,” Marble said.

Marble said the goal of the app’s development partners is to reach 150,000 users by the end of the month. If 15% of smartphone users in the state have and participate in the app, then infections could be reduced by 8% and deaths by 6%, according to a September scientific paper by researchers at Google Research, the University of Oxford and Stanford University.

Marble said the current download rate appears to be on track to reach that goal by the end of January, although she added that there is also no easy way to determine how many of the downloads are from people who will soon leave or have already left the state.

So far, 24 states in the country have developed similar exposure notification apps, Marble said. California’s app — called CA Notify — has been downloaded to 20% of phones in that state, she said.

Currently, the app’s “redemption rate” — the percentage of users who share their codes after testing positive — is 2%, Marble said, although the DOH sends a notice to everyone when they test positive, regardless of whether they have the app installed or not.

Marble added that the app’s true efficacy is only unlocked when users choose to share codes when prompted, and urged users to participate.

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The app can be downloaded via the Apple App Store or Google Play. The app requires the user’s phone to have its Bluetooth turned on. More information can be found at alohasafealert.org.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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