California’s COVID-19 exposure notifications go live Thursday

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COVID-19 contact tracing is about to get easier in California.
COVID-19 contact tracing is about to get easier in California.
Photo: Brian McGowan/Unsplash CC

California will launch a COVID-19 exposure-notification system Thursday that uses smartphones to track interactions with infected people.

The state “has partnered with Google and Apple to launch a #COVID19 exposure notification app, CA Notify,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday on Twitter. “Starting Thursday, you can opt in to get push notifications on your phone if you have been exposed to COVID-19.”

Individuals who opt into the system, which is powered by an API developed jointly by Apple and Google, will receive alerts if they come into contact with other people diagnosed with a COVID-19 infection.

The system works by exchanging anonymous keys between smartphones via Bluetooth. They keys are stored for 14 days on the devices. The system also tracks the length of time two smartphone owners came into contact, as well as the approximate distance between them.

If one person subsequently tests positive for the novel coronavirus, the other person will receive a notification of the exposure. Then that person could take appropriate action, like getting tested for COVID-19 or going into quarantine.

COVID-19 contact tracing

The automated approach to contact tracing — a method long used to combat infectious diseases — could ease the burden on health care workers who currently must interview COVID-19 patients to try to figure out who they could have inadvertently passed the disease to.

Similar COVID-19 tracking systems operate in other states and countries, some based on the privacy-focused Apple/Google platform. Other governments took more centralized approaches to tracking COVID-19 infections with cellphones, with varying results. Several U.S. states already deployed contact-tracing systems based on the Apple/Google approach, with some operating across state lines.

No matter what system regions employ, the effectiveness of such programs depends on widespread adoption. If every smartphone owner in California opted in, CA Notify could help stop the spread of COVID-19, which is currently surging in the state. According to SFGate, “COVID-19 cases in California are exploding at a never-before-seen rate as the state reported 30,075 cases on Saturday, the highest daily number ever.”

With the disease spreading rapidly, Californians face increasingly tight lockdowns that damage businesses and generally crush the economy.

The new exposure notifications offer yet another tool for combatting the disease. But — as with so many things COVID-19 — not everybody is on board. While some people fear tracking apps like this could lead to unwanted surveillance, Newsom called CA Notify “100% private & secure.” The system has been in testing on University of California campuses for several months.

How to enable Exposure Notifications on iPhone

Apple built Exposure Notifications into iOS 13.5. However, if you are a California resident and want to opt in, you must manually enable Exposure Notifications on your iPhone.

Make sure you’re running a recent version of iOS and have Bluetooth turned on. Then, follow these steps to turn on COVID-19 Exposure Notifications on iPhone:

  1. Open the Settings app, then down and tap Exposure Notifications.
  2. Tap Turn On Exposure Notifications, then hit Continue.
  3. Choose United States > California, then accept the terms.
  4. When prompted, allow Exposure Notifications access to Bluetooth on your iPhone. Finally, tap Turn On to enable push notifications.

Note: If you live outside California, following the steps above should let you see if a COVID-19 tracking system is available in your state.

How to enable Exposure Notifications on Android

Those with Android smartphones can download the CA Notify app from Google Play.

Google offers a straightforward description of how the system works:

Using California COVID Notify is voluntary and free of charge. The more people who install and use the app, the more effectively the app can help us to contain the virus.

Once you install and activate California COVID Notify and turn on Bluetooth, the app works in the background and exchanges anonymous keys with other devices. (Keys are long random strings of characters that are not tied to any personal information). Devices with the app installed will record the keys generated by other devices nearby. The app will record the signal strength, used to estimate the distance between devices, the duration and date of the exposure. To protect the users’ privacy, these keys are only kept on the user’s own device. After 14 days the keys are deleted.

If a California COVID Notify user tests positive for COVID-19, they will be able to obtain a verification code from a healthcare provider, lab or local health authority. The code allows the user to activate the notification function in the app. This warns other app users that were near the infected person in the period close to the time when that person first experienced symptoms of the disease. If the estimated distance was within six feet, the duration of exposure was at least 15 minutes cumulatively, then the other user receives a notification of a possible exposure. Anyone who receives a notification can then follow the guidance in the app and find out what to do next.

You must use the verification code in order to report a positive result via the app. This prevents people from falsely reporting positive results, which could generate false exposure notifications. [The California Department of Public Health] wants all app users to feel confident that when a possible COVID-19 exposure is received via the app, that it is a real event.

California’s governor also praised Apple and Google for their efforts on the exposure notifications system:

And Apple CEO Tim Cook returned the compliment:

Source: CA Notify