"It is painless, it is free, it is secure," the governor said, noting that the app is 100% opt-in.By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday new technology to help Minnesotans slow the spread of COVID-19.

At a noontime press conference, he unveiled a new app that helps inform users if they’ve been exposed to the virus. The app is called COVIDaware MN, and it’s free to download. About 20 other states are also using the app’s technology, the governor said.

“It is painless, it is free, it is secure,” Walz told reporters, adding that the app doesn’t track users’ location or collect personal data.

Here’s how the app works: If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can request a code from health officials that they can put into the app, if they so choose. This code will then alert other app users if they’ve recently come within six feet of the infected individual. Those who are exposed are then alerted and can seek testing.

“I want to be clear to Minnesotans,” the governor said. “This is an opt-in alternative. You don’t have to put the code into your phone, and you don’t have to notify others around you. I would strongly encourage, if not beg you, please do so.”

Experts say even if only 15% of people in a given community have the app, it still is effective in notifying people that otherwise would not have been contacted. One downside of the app is that it does not take into account any plastic partitions that may have been between you and an exposed person.

The state is using outreach at colleges and universities to promote the app to younger people, who have been among the groups nationwide who have tended to ignore bans on large gatherings.

Tarek Tomes, the head of Minnesota IT Services, explained at the press conference that the app technology was created through a ground-breaking partnership between Google and Apple, with a focus on security.

The app does not track users’ location and it doesn’t share personal data with technology companies, Tomes said. What the app does use is mobile phone Bluetooth technology to record proximity to other app users. Each user is given a random number, and the app records the general proximity and timeframe of when the phones were near each other.

“If communities are willing to adopt the app, use it to report positive test results and follow health recommendations when notified of an exposure, this app can help us return to many of the activities we miss so much, and save lives,” Tomes said.

The app has been widely in Europe and Asia, but have been slower to catch on in the United States because of privacy concerns.

The announcement of the app comes as Minnesota is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Since the weekend, the state has counted nearly 20,000 new infections and 115 deaths. If these trends continue, Minnesota’s total COVID-19 case tally is expected to breach the 300,000 benchmark by Thanksgiving, health officials say. Currently, the state’s death toll stands at 3,265.

Walz will announce a package of proposals Tuesday to help places like bars, restaurants and fitness centers. Passage of the package would require a special session, which the governor says he is ready to call immediately.

Esme Murphy