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Washington hopes smartphones will warn about COVID-19 exposure

While preparing for the first shipment of vaccines later in December, state officials are hoping Washington residents will agree to use their smart phones to learn of times when they have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19.

A new app, WANotify, can alert users to instances when they’ve been close to someone else who uses the app and later tests positive for the virus.

The system was enabled Monday for iPhone users, who may opt in or out by toggling the switch. Android users may download the app on the Google Play store by searching for “WA Notify.”

It’s voluntary for both users and doesn’t reveal either user’s identity or locations, Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday during a news conference to explain the app.

“It’s your choice,” Inslee said, describing the app as “an elegant and important tool” that could help supplement contact tracing as a way to keep the virus from spreading.

An app user who tests positive for the virus will be given an anonymous code they can put into the program. Other app users who have been in close contact over the previous 14 days with the person who tested positive will then be notified and advised what steps to take, such as self-isolating, getting tested and quarantining.

The app takes into account how close the two people came to each other and how long they were in that close contact.

The advice sent out will also be voluntary, and the state Department of Health won’t know who is getting those notifications, Director Dr. John Wiesman said.

“Privacy is absolutely paramount,” said Ana Mari Cauci, president of the University of Washington, which helped lead the development of the app.

Several other states have similar apps, but Washington waited for the technology to be developed and reviewed by a panel that included experts in privacy laws.

The state also is looking for more health care providers willing to administer COVID-19 vaccine when it arrives in the state in mid-December. The Pfizer vaccine is scheduled for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearing next week.Distribution to the states could begin within a day of receiving emergency approval.

Washington is among states that said earlier this fall it will require an additional review of the vaccine if it gets quick FDA approval. Inslee, who previously said he had doubts about the Trump administration’s push for a vaccine, said Monday that review might only take hours.

The medical community “stood up for science” and upheld high standards for developing the vaccine, he said.

“Everything we’re seeing here at the Department of Health is reassuring,” Wiesman said. “We’re feeling very good about the process.”

The state is expected to get about 200,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in December and a yet-to-be-determined number doses of the Moderna vaccine. It is still developing plans for who will be vaccinated first, although Inslee said they will include members of the medical community and residents of long-term care facilities who have other health conditions.

State residents should expect to continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing and living with other restrictions after the vaccine begins to arrive, state officials said. Controlling the virus will likely take a vaccination rate of between 60% and 70% of the population, Wiesman said.

“If we’re going to make the vaccine work, you’ve got to be alive when we get it,” Inslee said.

New cases

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 243 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and the district confirmed an additional 645 cases over the weekend. Spokane County has now surpassed 17,000 confirmed cases

There are 115 COVID-19 patients in local hospitals, and 83 of them are Spokane County residents. Eight more Spokane County residents have died from the virus since Friday, bringing the total number of deaths in the county to 262.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 234 new cases during the past three days.

Hospitalizations continue to climb in the five-county region, with 70 COVID patients receiving treatment at Kootenai Health, including 16 patients requiring critical care.

Five more Panhandle residents died from the virus during the weekend, and 112 Panhandle residents have died from the virus during the pandemic.

Arielle Dreher contributed to this report.