State Officials Encourage Use of New COVID App, Share Good Vaccine News

by Carolyn Bick


As the state braces for the potential infection fallout of those who chose to gather for Thanksgiving, Gov. Jay Inslee in a Nov. 30 press conference encouraged Washingtonians to download or activate a new app that anonymously alerts users if they have been in close contact with someone infected with COVID-19. He also shared that the first shipments of a vaccine will be available by mid-December, with more on the way.

Created and soft-tested at the University of Washington, in partnership with the Department of Health (DOH), Apple, and Google, the app, called WA Notify, uses randomized codes coupled with Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have been in what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines as “close contact,” which is a distance of six feet or less for a period of 15 minutes or more. 

The app, which comes in 29 different languages, does not track users’ locations, does not tell users with whom they may have had contact who has tested positive, and does not tell users where they may have been infected with the disease, Inslee explained. It also does not store personal data, nor does it send personal data to the DOH, Apple, or Google.

“Let’s say you’re out in public, and you spent time near someone who, at some point, is positive for the virus. When two people using WA Notify are near each other, their phones exchange random codes using Bluetooth technology. That means this is anonymous, and it does not involve location tracking,” Inslee said. “If one of those people later tests positive for COVID-19, and they enter a verification code from public health officers into WA Notify, anyone with WA Notify who was near that person, during their infectious period, will get a notification that they may have [been] exposed to COVID-19.”

The app uses an algorithm to determine how close users were and for how long, and puts it in the context of the infected person’s contagious period, Inslee said. Proximity to someone infected with COVID-19 is determined by the strength of the Bluetooth signal between smartphones. This means that “if you were on the other side of a grocery store from someone who tested positive and has the app, that doesn’t trigger the exposure notification,” since the app uses the CDC’s definition of close contact, Inslee said.

The notifications users will receive also include links to information about what to do, in order to protect oneself and others. The system is an entirely voluntary one, but Inslee encouraged Washingtonians to download it and participate.

“Models suggest that even a small number of people who use WA Notify in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties alone would reduce infections by up to 11 percent and deaths by up to 15 percent,” he said.

The app is already available on iPhones — go to Settings, scroll down to Exposure Notifications, click Turn On Exposure Notifications, and select United States, followed by Washington — and Android users can download it by visiting wanotify.org. The Emerald has included a screenshot of what it looks like on an Android phone, and what it looks like on an Apple phone below.

Inslee also shared that the first doses of Pfizer’s mRNA-based vaccine against COVID-19 will be available by mid-December, and that, by the end of December, the state will have 200,000 doses to distribute. As announced in previous press conferences, high-risk frontline workers, such as nurses, doctors, and other caregivers, will have the first opportunity to get the vaccine.

Inslee also encouraged healthcare providers to sign up to be vaccine distributors, and that those interested can find more information at this DOH webpage.

In response to the Emerald’s question, Inslee and DOH Sec. John Wiesman both confirmed that the state will also be getting doses of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, for which the company today announced they have sought an Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The amount of vaccine the state will receive depends on population size, Wiesman said.

However, Wiesman said that at this time, the state does not have the details on how much of that vaccine the state will be getting, nor how many Pfizer or Moderna vaccines the state will start receiving on a regular basis, beginning in early January 2021.


Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them on Twitter, and check out their other work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot of the most recent COVID-19 data from the DOH’s COVID tracking dashboard. As of Nov. 30, 2020, the dashboard shows 165,019 total confirmed cases, 10,895 hospitalizations, and 2,774 deaths, all since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020.