New Jersey officials now testing smartphone app to help with contact tracing

TRENTON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- With New Jersey's rate of transmission still just above the benchmark of one, and the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases now over 201,000, health officials are trying to build up the state's contact tracing efforts.

They hope a new app will help quickly notify people when they've been exposed.

Stockton University in Galloway, N.J. is one of three campuses where the app is being tested.

While many classes are online, in-person classes are being held in different, much bigger spaces on campus.

As students head back to class and colleges open dorms, health officials say contact tracing becomes all the more important.

"Especially if you're working in groups - which we don't even do that much anyway now - but it's just good to know if you're around anyone who has it, you can know right away," said senior Arina Maier of West Deptford, N.J.

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Stockton University is one of three colleges participating in the testing phase for New Jersey's new contact tracing app. About 100 students were invited to try it out.

"Honestly I think it's pretty easy to use," said Stockton junior Nadir Hassan.

He's one of the students participating in the testing and has been using it for about a week and a half, checking in every day.

"Simplicity is key when it comes to this kind of stuff. It's as simple as pressing a button, saying yes I have symptoms or no I don't," said Hassan.

But the testing phase isn't just about if the app works - it's also about the perception.

"Students were concerned, saying 'I don't want to put this on my phone because it might track my location,'" said Stockton University Chief Information Officer Scott Huston, describing one of the concerns discussed in the marketing phase of testing. "It allowed them to know, 'hey that's something we should really market, that it does not track your location at any time.'"

Because the app relies on the proximity to other devices with the app using Bluetooth technology, health officials are hoping people will use it.

"It will detect and log anonymous codes from devices with the app that are on close contact - within six feet of a user for 10 minutes or longer," said N.J. Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli.

The app is being developed by NearForm, the same company that created the apps for Pennsylvania and Delaware. The developer says all three apps will communicate with each other.

State officials have not said when New Jersey's app will be available to the public.
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