FARGO — North Dakotans can help fight the COVID-19 pandemic from their fingertips the same way football fans use the Bison Tracker app to see how many are making the national championship journey to Frisco, Texas.
The maker of Bison Tracker, Tim Brookins, founded the Care19 app to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in North Dakota and touted it during a virtual 1 Million Cups event Wednesday, April 8, with Gov. Doug Burgum.
“As you know, we're in the middle of a historic, unprecedented crisis; a global pandemic,” Burgum said via Facebook Live. “The path forward when you're in uncharted waters requires new approaches and innovation.”
Burgum first announced the app Tuesday afternoon during his daily coronavirus news conference in Bismarck. The app is a public-private partnership with the state and tracks a person’s movements to public places like grocery stores and restaurants. It addresses the important aspect of contact tracing, Burgum said, which aids in combating the spread of the virus.
“When we contain the spread, we preserve our hospital capacity, and that's what allows us to save lives,” Burgum said. “So by you signing up for Care19, you've got an opportunity to act for the better of all. You've got an opportunity to really demonstrate your social responsibility, you've got literally an opportunity to help save lives.”
The free mobile app, launched Tuesday afternoon in the Apple iOS App Store, had around 5,000 downloads within the first few hours. Android users will be able to download the app in the Google Play store in a week, Burgum said.
“We've just learned through the Bison Tracker that it builds a sense of community if you can see those dots light up and you can see your fellow citizens in the state pitching in,” Brookins said.
The app identifies where people have been while protecting the user’s data. When someone launches the app, there’s no sign in. Location is only stored when a person visits a place for 10 minutes or more.
“Pretty much everything we've learned at Microsoft around locking down data is in play here,” said Brookins, a longtime technical leader at Microsoft in Fargo via Live Stream.
Care19 is anonymous, and automatically assigns a random digital ID to the user that can’t be identified back. Whenever a position is uploaded, Brookins gets a latitude and a longitude along with the random identifier, but “that’s all I know you by,” he said.
“The fun part of the app, like the Bison Tracker, they don't identify people, but they show where the downloads are,” Burgum said. “And I saw that as of last night (Tuesday), we already had downloads in Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota, as well as a thousands in North Dakota.”
Positive tests for coronavirus in North Dakota were up to 251, the state department of health announced Wednesday. Burgum said at a time like this, a community approach is imperative.
“Testing is like having a great quarterback. If you don't have someone to throw the ball to, doesn't matter if you’re Carson Wentz, you gotta have great receivers,” Burgum said. “The contact-tracing app helps fill out that team, where we can pass the ball of one positive test onto it, (which) can really help us contain it in a more targeted way, as opposed to having shutting down the whole economy.”
The aggregate data Care19 will build up will be particularly useful with people who test positive for coronavirus through contact. Community spread is the source the government is keeping the closest eye on, Burgum said.
The digital location logs can aid in developing clues to identify where the spread of the virus might go, or where a breakout happened — if the hotspot broke out in a particular bar, restaurant or supermarket.
“Then instead of shutting down all the bars and restaurants in the state, you could shut down one until they had a chance to disinfect and trace back and notify the people that were there,” Burgum said.
As the economy gets brought back up, tools like this will be essential to solve both the health issues and economic challenges the nation will be facing, Burgum said.
“We’ve got concerns right now with isolation about depression, suicide, domestic abuse,” Burgum said. “All those things go on the rise when the economy is down, and when people are isolated. So when we're looking at the health of the entire population, having a targeted approach to controlling the virus is really essential.”