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The Role of Digital Tools in Public Health: WA Notify Combats COVID-19 Spread in Washington State

The COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges to public health systems around the globe. While traditional contact tracing methods and public information dissemination were crucial, digital tools emerged as invaluable aids in these efforts. One noteworthy example is Washington State’s WA Notify, a smartphone-based exposure notification tool that transformed COVID-19 response measures to offer unique insights for future public health initiatives. 

Washington State was the first location where COVID-19 appeared in the United States. In response, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) was tasked with rapidly implementing a comprehensive public health strategy. Digital tools like WA Notify have played a pivotal role in various initiatives. 

Launched on November 30, 2020, in partnership with Apple and Google, WA Notify alerts users of potential COVID-19 exposures. The tool respects user privacy, using low-energy Bluetooth technology to exchange anonymous codes with nearby devices.  

Washington State was not the first in the country to launch an app, but they began work on it before anyone else.  

“We took a careful path working with our communities before we released it to make sure that everybody was on board and understood how the technology worked,” said Dr. Bryant Karras, DOH chief medical informatics officer and senior epidemiologist.  

He described the app as “so innovative, so unique” and probably “one of the most successful engagement tools we used throughout the pandemic.” 

User Adoption and Effectiveness 

As of May 2023, the app had been activated on smartphones nearly 4 million times. More than 235,000 participants confirmed a positive COVID-19 test result through the app, generating over 2.5 million anonymous exposure notifications. In the first four months of use, researchers at the University of Washington estimated that the app had already saved up to 120 lives, highlighting its efficacy in curtailing the virus’s spread. 

WA Notify also incorporated a scientific approach to its strategy. The University of Washington partnered with the Department of Health for an ongoing evaluation of the app’s effectiveness.  

“There was a small link at the top [of exposure notifications] that said, ‘If you want to provide feedback, click here for a short survey,'” Dr. Karras said. There was high user engagement with that survey, which helped the team adapt the app based on user needs and behavior. 

Challenges and Innovations 

One significant challenge in deploying such apps is public apprehension about data privacy. WA Notify addressed this by ensuring no personal data or location information was collected or shared. 

The Department of Health was mindful of the challenges of reaching diverse audiences and battling misinformation.  

“We brought together focus groups of both the naysayers and the supporters to understand how we create a campaign that speaks to these audiences without alienating these audiences,” Dr. Karras explained. 

To further mitigate public apprehensions, the Washington State DOH, in collaboration with the C+C marketing firm, developed a robust, transformational digital marketing campaign. Research insights were used to create a communications strategy that targeted various demographics, including young adults, Spanish speakers, and other minority communities. 

Real-World Impact 

The app seamlessly integrates with traditional methods of contact tracing, which usually involve interviews and manual notifications. The app has helped people get timely care and prevent further spread by speeding up the exposure notification process. 

The marketing campaign’s targeted approach helped to build momentum and facilitate community engagement. The app initially supported 29 languages native to Android and iPhone devices. By the end of its development, the app included 35 languages plus English and website information was available in 47 languages to ensure non-English speaking communities are not left behind.  

“This app would automatically present the information to individuals in the preferred language selected on their device,” Karras said. 

A Multi-Layered Success 

The WA Notify app demonstrates the immense potential of digital tools in public health crises. Its effective privacy measures, coupled with strategic marketing and outreach, have improved the app’s adoption and contributed to its success in saving lives. The program demonstrates the importance of integrating digital tools with traditional public health methods, which will be key to tackling health challenges more effectively and inclusively in the future. 

For its successful program, the Washington DOH was awarded 2nd place in the Digital Transformation category in the 2023 Granicus Digital Government Awards, which honor outstanding individuals, teams, and agencies creating positive change in their communities and in their organizations.