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Sonoma County to require cellphone app, temperature checks for employees returning to the workplace

Sonoma County is set to require the use of a smartphone application to verify that employees don’t have coronavirus symptoms and haven’t been exposed to anyone with COVID-19 before showing up to work.

The county hired technology giant IBM to develop the SoCo COVID-19 Check app at a cost of $160,000 and already has released it on the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Employees using the app will screen themselves for symptoms and exposure, and employers will use a parallel feature of the same app to verify employees’ wellness checks before shifts start.

“It takes literally like 30 seconds, as long as you don’t have any symptoms, of course, and haven’t had any contact with anyone with COVID,” Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said Friday.

The app - or an alternative system that allows for the same type of employee-employer assessments and data reporting - will be required for both private-sector and government employees under Sonoma County’s shelter-in-place order as of June 1, as well as mandatory temperature checks for workers. The electronic assessment is meant to provide tools to keep workers and worksites COVID-free while also providing a new stream of information to inform the county’s pandemic response.

As of Sunday, with 18 new cases reported, the county had 500 confirmed cases: 289 active, 207 recovered and four cases that resulted in deaths.

People using SoCo COVID-19 Check for the first time are told they “will help give County health officials information they need to make decisions in order for the County to reopen and remain open in a responsible way and work to revitalize our economy and mitigate risk,” according to the app.

People who work from home are not required to use the app. Mase’s most recent health order states that it applies to employees who are “reporting to their work site or other assignment away from their residence.”

Data collected by the app in the form of anonymous personal responses will be stored on IBM’s cloud, where Sonoma County will be able to access the information, IBM has said. The aggregate data collected through the app - which does not track location, according to its privacy policy - will be deleted after being held for 45 days. A county spokesman told The Press Democrat earlier this month that the app would not be used for contact tracing.

The app then asks users to input the ZIP code in which they work, their industry, and age range. Then, users are asked whether they’ve been in contact with anyone known to have COVID-19, with a special option besides “yes” or “no” for health care workers who may have been exposed. They’re also asked whether they’re experiencing any coronavirus-related symptoms.

If all signs point to negative, employees are shown a screen that thanks them and asks them to share their screen with their employer. If the indications are positive, they’re told they “may have risk factors for COVID-19” and are asked to seek guidance from their primary care provider before showing up to work. (The app includes a disclaimer that it does not provide medical advice.)

Employers using the app will review employee responses and may also use data fields for employee temperatures and use of facial coverings, said Carolyn Staats, the county’s director of innovation, in an IBM webinar last month.

The app also includes a feed with links to Sonoma County coronavirus statistics, health orders and Mase’s regular weekday video updates.

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