On March 23, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) announced the launch of NM Notify, an exposure notification app that alerts individuals when they’ve been in close proximity to someone that’s tested positive for COVID-19.

Exposure notification apps are a form of technology-based contact tracing. Google and Apple worked together with public health departments across the country to create apps that will notify people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, even if they don’t know them, according to a Google video on the topic.

When an individual walks by someone else using the app, both devices will exchange the users’ randomly generated personal identification numbers via Bluetooth. Then, if someone tests positive for COVID-19 and reports it in the app, any device that exchanged numbers with them in the last two weeks will receive a notification about the potential exposure.

Jim Walton, communications specialist for NMDOH, said it’s important for college students in particular to utilize the NM Notify app.

“This is a 30 second download or a 30 second activation and (college students) can go about their business of the day, and if they come into contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID, then they can take the appropriate steps to stop the spread right there. That’s the whole point of this,” Walton said. 

Walton said Apple and Google opted to not use GPS for contact tracing because it wasn’t as private as Bluetooth, and added that the code NM Notify gives you is the only personal identifier the app utilizes.

“You’re not putting your name into it, you’re not putting your gender into it, you’re not putting your age into it,” Walton said. “There is no personal information that is taken into this application.”

Others that support the app are unsure if it will even be successful.

“The app will only work well if most people opt-in to it,” James Wilterding, executive director for Student Health and Counseling, said. “That's what it’s going to take for it to work very well.”

Natalie Rogers, records officer for the Public Health Student Association, heard about the NM Notify app through NMDOH’s social media accounts and her UNM email. The app is automatically set up through iPhone so she didn’t have to enroll in it; she only had to turn on notifications.

“I enrolled (in notifications) because contact tracing is really important for tracking outbreaks, especially as we move forward with more people being vaccinated, and outbreaks are getting smaller and harder to track,” Rogers said.

Rogers emphasized the importance of contact tracing to help avoid a “huge resurgence wave of infections.”

“I want to be able to go out to a store or a restaurant or somewhere else in the city and feel like I will be notified if someone there was tested positive for COVID,” Rogers said. “That way I can know to quarantine and get tested and make sure that I don’t infect anybody else.”

Walton said enrollment in the app is important because research findings from Oxford University suggest that exposure notifications can reduce the number of deaths and infections overall.

“For every two downloads we are able to avoid one infection. So, that’s the possibility of two people saving one person’s life,” Walton said.

Walton said NMDOH is pleased with the amount of New Mexicans who have already downloaded the app, and considers it to be a success. 

“In the two and a half days that this has been up (since March 23), we have had 10% of the population of the state of New Mexico download the app,” Walton said.

Deborah Brown, an officer for the undergraduate American Medical Student Association chapter at UNM, said the app can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but individuals still need to follow CDC safety guidelines.

“I think that while the application itself wouldn't be able to stand alone in fighting against COVID-19 or any pandemic for that matter … (it) can be used as a good resource especially for those who are at higher risk,” Brown said.

Jesus Mata is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contracted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JesusMataJr99