DC debuts smartphone-based COVID-19 exposure alert system

The nation’s capital has become one of the first jurisdictions in the country to employ a new COVID-19 notification system

Mayor Muriel Bowser on Tuesday urged all residents with Apple or Android smartphones to opt in to the new DC COVID Alert Notice system, or DC CAN. Bowser called it “a quick and easy way to know if you might have been exposed to COVID-19. Opting in is one more way you can protect yourself, your friends and family, and our entire community.”

Washington, D.C., and the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia are the first to embrace the ENE notification system. Those who opt in to the program will receive a push notification on their phone if they have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case. The D.C. Department of Health defines exposure as being within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.

The city statement attempts to address privacy concerns by emphasizing that it will not track users’ locations or see their identities. It explains that each person will be assigned a random ID, which will change every 10 to 20 minutes “to help ensure these random IDs can’t be used to identify you or your location.”

Each person’s phone then “periodically checks all the random IDs associated with positive COVID-19 cases against its own list,” the statement says. “If there’s a match, you will receive a COVID-19 exposure notification, with further instructions from D.C. Health on how to keep you and the people around you safe.”

Health Department spokesperson Kimberly Henderson said the DC CAN system will also interact with other COVID-19 tracking apps in Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

“Users that travel between these regions will receive Exposure Notifications if they come in close contact with another user that has verified a positive test result regardless of the State experience they are using,” Henderson said in an email.

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For more information on how to opt in to the DC CAN system, visit the Department of Health explainer.