Minnesota officials announced Thursday that the new COVID-19 variant had been detected in the state, involving a man who had been vaccinated and got a booster shot and who traveled to a widely attended convention in New York. More positive test results are under examination to see if they were caused by the new variant. “It’s important that we adapt to the phases of the pandemic, and that we continue to make our surveillance relevant,” state Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said in an interview this week. Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, takes off her mask during a press conference.Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020. While the health department concentrates on virus detective work, a state technology agency has been working to increase use of the COVIDaware MN phone application that allows people to anonymously alert others through Bluetooth technology of potential coronavirus exposure.
Efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota have been restructured in light of the recent spike in cases. Getty Images | Josep Lago | AFP 2017. Two technologies designed to combat COVID-19’s spread in Minnesota have been updated in light of the recent spike in cases. A smartphone alert system that had been infrequently used recently received an update to increase notification volume. Not long before that, public health experts focused their contact tracing efforts on the most alarming tendencies. The fast-spreading delta variation continues to drive case increase, while the newly emerged omicron form is causing concern as health professionals scramble to understand more about its severity and transmissibility.
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Since its debut almost a year ago, nearly 1.8 million people have downloaded the application or otherwise signed up to receive alerts. DFL Gov. Tim Walz made a big deal of the technology when it went live in November 2020. “You don’t have to put the code in your phone and you don’t have to notify others around you. I would strongly encourage you, if not beg you, please do so. It’s random,” Walz said then. “People deserve to know if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.” But in the first 11 months, COVIDaware had relatively low use in comparison to the number of subscribed devices and cases of coronavirus.
Data from Minnesota IT Services, the state agency that oversees the program, shows that just shy of 43,000 codes were generated through October 2021. Far fewer — about 7,900 — were taken to the next step when a person with a positive test punched in the code to trigger an alert. That’s in the context of more than 550,000 test-confirmed cases over that span. As it turns out, the codes needed to initiate the alerts weren’t universally sent to people with positive tests. That is — until about three weeks ago when MNIT changed course.
“We now proactively send out the codes to individuals at the front end of the case investigation,” said Tarek Tomes, MNIT’s commissioner. He added that they’re now sent via text message, using the number people give when getting a test through a certified provider. Rapid antigen tests done at home do not qualify. “Simplicity is key,” Tomes said. “One of the changes that was made is providing a link with the code that you can just select the link, and it automatically activates it, so that a person doesn’t have to transpose the code.” The result? Notifications are way up after the switch on Nov. 12. Since then, roughly 4,500 codes have been activated in connection to more than 57,000 known new cases. More than 50,000 codes were generated in November, so the follow-through rate is still less than optimal.
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