New York and New Jersey launch COVID-19 contact tracing apps

People with masks walking while looking at their phones.
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New York and New Jersey joined a handful of other states in launching contact tracing apps for COVID-19.

On Thursday (Oct. 1), the two states each launched their own contact tracing apps called "COVID Alert NY" and "COVID Alert NJ," respectively. These apps, which keep users' identities anonymous, are based on a new technology developed by Google and Apple. They use bluetooth to connect to nearby phones and alert users if they've been in close contact with someone who has been infected with the coronavirus. 

From the very start of the pandemic, contact tracing has been an important part of helping to stop the spread of the virus. Contact tracing involves identifying people with COVID-19, figuring out who they came in close contact with, and notifying all of those people so that they can self-quarantine or get tested before spreading the virus to others. Most of those efforts have been conducted by people conducting phone calls.

Related: Coronavirus live updates

"We have about 15,000 people statewide who do contact tracing. They call them disease detectives," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a briefing on Thursday. "But we've been looking for a technology-based solution."

The contact tracing app "knows where your cellphone is, the app will know where a person who tested positive was through their cellphone and the app can tell you if you were within 6 feet of that person," Cuomo said. "It doesn't give names, it doesn't give any privacy information [and] it's voluntary."

This is how it works: When you've spent more than 10 minutes within 6 feet of another person with the app, which is "long enough and close enough for you to catch the virus," your phone exchanges a "secure" and "random" code with the other person's phone, according to the COVID Alert NY app. The phones will store these random codes in a list.

If you end up testing positive for COVID-19, a public health representative will call and ask if you'd be willing to share the app's list of random codes to help protect other people. "Sharing your list is secure and private," according to the app descriptions. "The app never reveals who you are to anyone." Also, the app will constantly compare its own list to the list of infected codes, and if there's a match it will send a notification to the person's phone, alerting you that you may have been in close contact with an infected person. You also have the option to keep track of your own symptoms on the apps.

A handful of other states have their own contact tracing apps, including Alabama, Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada,  North Dakota, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Delaware,  Virginia, North Carolina and Arizona, according to the The New York Times

The apps launched by Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and one that will soon be launched in Connecticut will work together, Cuomo said. "So even if you're traveling in the Metropolitan area, it will tell you if you were in contact with a person," with COVID-19, he added.

The new app will "not only bring contact tracing to a new level, but it's going to give people comfort," he added. 

Still, the apps will only work effectively if enough people download and use them. Other countries such as France, Germany, Ireland and South Korea have previously launched their own contact tracing apps with varying success in getting people to download the apps, according to CNBC.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.