With the omicron variant fueling lightning-fast spread of COVID-19, it’s a good time for iPhone owners to take advantage of the exposure notifications feature built into iOS. By simply enabling this feature, you will get an alert after being exposed to someone who tests positive for the virus — as long as they also have contact notifications turned on, and they report their test results.
For obvious reasons, this automatic version of contact tracing works more effectively if more people utilize it. If you discover that you’ve been in close contact with an infected person, you can take appropriate steps (getting tested, staying away from vulnerable people, etc.)
We’ll show you how to take control of COVID-19 exposure notifications on your device.
Why turn on iPhone exposure notifications?
The underlying technology for smartphone exposure notifications, developed jointly by Apple and Google in the early months of the pandemic, is designed to automate contact tracing. It works in conjunction with contact tracing apps developed by health authorities in regions around the world.
While it’s been in use in various localities for more than a year, the recent omicron surge — and the record-breaking number of new COVID-19 infections — caused many iPhone owners to receive their first exposure notifications.
Knowing whether you’ve been around someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is hugely important. That information can help you make better decisions about who you have contact with, protecting your family, friends, colleagues and anyone else you might see face-to-face.
So it’s a good idea to enable exposure notifications. Here’s how to access your notification preferences.
How to enable COVID-19 exposure notifications
Exposure notifications aren’t enabled by default on your iPhone. You will need to activate them manually if you want to receive them. Follow these steps:
- Turn on Bluetooth if it’s not already on.
- Open the Settings app on your iPhone.
- Tap Exposure Notifications.
- Tap Turn on Exposure Notifications.
- Hit Continue, then select your country.
- Select your state or region if necessary.
Continue to follow the prompts until you complete the setup. If your country or region operates its own contact tracing app, you will receive a prompt to download it from the App Store. Agree to the terms and conditions presented. And, when a pop-up asks you to allow notifications for exposure notifications, tap Turn On.
You also should turn on Availability Alerts. That way, if you travel to a new region, you will be notified that you can opt in to that system.
What to do if you get an exposure notification alert
After enabling exposure notifications, your iPhone will exchange anonymous tokens with other smartphone owners. If you spend a certain amount of time near somebody who later tests positive for COVID-19, you will get an alert about the possible exposure.
What should you do then?
“First thing to do: breathe and don’t panic for the simple reason that the app doesn’t know how protected you were at the time or if it was a credible exposure,” University of California San Francisco infectious diseases expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong told SFGate.
Chin-Hong recommended getting tested after receiving an exposure notification alert. You can find details about the time and date of your contact with the infected person by looking into the exposure notifications app. Chin-Hong said ideally you should get tested three to five days after the date of the exposure — especially if you suffer from any COVID-19 symptoms. And you should consider telling other people you’ve come into contact with since your exposure.
Why the system hasn’t been as successful as possible
Due to privacy concerns, misinformation and possibly paranoia, some people fear using the exposure notifications system. And a lack of widespread adoption has dampened the technology’s potential.
A recent story in the Washington Post discussed the problem:
Nearly two years later, as the omicron variant sweeps across the United States, adoption of the system is still far behind what its creators and proponents envisioned. More than 20 states don’t use it at all, including large states like Florida and Texas that have reported millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths. Even in states where millions have activated the notifications, only a fraction of people who test positive for the virus report it to the Apple and Google system. California’s system, for example, has been activated on more than 15 million devices, but only about 3 percent of the nearly 3.9 million cases reported since launch were logged in the system.
Getting more people participating in the system increases the network’s effectiveness. And, obviously, if you enable exposure notifications and later test positive for COVID-19, you should report your test result.
How to disable COVID-19 exposure notifications
Having more people using the exposure notifications system should boost its usefulness. However, should you want to opt out for whatever reason, it is possible to turn off exposure notifications.
To disable exposure notifications on iPhone, simply follow the same steps above but at step three, select Turn Off Exposure Notifications. You also can delete your exposure logs by tapping Exposure Logging Status, and then selecting Delete Exposure Log. This will remove all logging information from your iPhone permanently.
Apple is keen to insist that enabling exposure notifications won’t impact your privacy. The system uses completely random keys that cannot be used to identify you. And those keys change at least once every 24 hours.
“We built the Exposure Notifications System to help public health authorities during this historic pandemic in a privacy-preserving way. We’re proud to collaborate with public health authorities and provide a resource — which many millions of people around the world have used — that has helped protect public health,” Google’s Nicolas Lopez and Apple’s Semonti Stephens said in a joint statement.
Note: We originally published this article on December 11, 2020.