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As Rhode Island begins reopening businesses, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo unveiled a new mobile app designed to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The CRUSH COVID RI app includes an optional GPS mobile tracking feature that can record users’ movements. The tracker enables users to provide their location history to state health officials to trace their contacts if they become infected with the virus. Health officials said the data also would allow them to quickly map hotspots by zip code to better respond to outbreaks. 

Shortly after the announcement, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union raised privacy concerns about using the app for contact-tracing.

“This is completely your choice,’’ Raimondo said at a news briefing. “No one is ever going to make you download this app...No one is going to make you share the data...But I’m asking you to do it. These systems only work as far as everyone uses them.”

Raimondo said she hoped to get more than 90% participation, but a state technology official said the hope was to reach more than 10% of the population or more than 100,000 participants.

The CRUSH COVID RI app, available for free at Apple and Google Play stores, was developed with the India-based technology company Infosys, which last year opened Digital Innovation and Design Center in Providence. Infosys helped build the app at no cost to the state, said Chirag Patel, of the state’s division of information technology. 

The app is a high-tech version of the contact-tracing notebook that Raimondo has been urging all Rhode Islanders to keep since March. The app also can be used to schedule tests for COVID-19 and locate other health resources. 

The data is stored on the user’s cell phone, she said, and is only available to state health officials if the user permits them to access it. The data is anonymized to protect the identity of the user, Raimondo said, and would only be identified by zip code.

The “location diary” would automatically be deleted from the users’ iPhones after 20 days. If the user contracted COVID-19, Raimondo said, health officials would ask them -- but not require them -- to share the data.

If users agree to share the data, the information would be viewed by state health officials “trained in disease investigations and contact tracing,” Kristine Campagna, who is leading the state Health Department’s contact tracing effort, said during a briefing with reporters prior to the governor’s announcement. 

The data collected by the app will not be sold or used for marketing purposes, Patel said.  

The information from the app would only be linked to the app ID, Patel said, not to the user’s name. (The Health Department has posted more information about the app here.)

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the ACLU said that the organization is “not opposed” to using technological tools that may benefit public health. And he praised Raimondo for “keeping privacy concerns front and center in the development of this app.” But Brown cautioned that the app has the potential to be misused, saying more information is needed for the public to “truly feel comfortable making use of this program.” 

Among the concerns, Brown said, is whether employees have any protections if their employers require them to use the app and whether supermarkets or other businesses could require use of the app as a condition of entry. He also asked what guarantees residents have that the state health officials will not share the information collected with law enforcement officials and others, Brown said, “even if for purported public health purposes…” The group released a white paper Tuesday detailing concerns about the app.

In response to reporters’ questions about whether information from the app might be accessible to immigration officials, Audrey Luca, a spokesperson for Raimondo, said that the state would not share the information with federal authorities unless they were under a court order to do so.

Raimondo also announced plans to reopen the more than 900 child care centers in Rhode Island on June 1. The state is providing 50,000 surgical masks to be distributed to all licensed child care centers and home day care providers. 

Rhode Island health officials on Tuesday reported 26 new deaths related to COVID-19, the highest one-day total since the state began tracking the data. The previous high was on May 2, with 23 deaths. The latest jump brings the total death toll to 532.

About half of the deaths attributed to the latest one-day spike were from previous days, due to a lag in receiving laboratory test results, said Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state’s health director.  

 About 24 of the 26 deaths were associated with nursing homes or assisted living centers, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state’s health director.  

As of last Wednesday, about 2,100 cases of the virus among residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers, and about 350 deaths. “We’re continuing to work aggressively and closely with congregant care settings to respond to this pandemic,” Alexander-Scott said. 

Health officials reported 247 hospitalized patients, including 50 in intensive care units and 40 on ventilators. That represents a decline from a high of 373 hospitalized patients on April 28.

--Lynn Arditi, health reporter, larditi@thepublicsradio.org