Smartphone notifications alerting possible COVID exposure increase amid California omicron surge

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Statewide, alerts have been sent to many smartphones letting people know if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The alert system has been around for more than a year but with the omicron surge, the number of notifications going out has gone up.

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CA Notify is a voluntary smartphone tool that lets you know if you've spent time near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

"We've seen a huge increase in notifications," said Dr. Chris Longhurst. "In fact, our notifications tend to precede cases by four to five days."

Longhurst is the Chief Medical Officer at UC San Diego Health which the state contracted to help develop CA Notify.

"Last winter, we saw the exposure notification tool was only notifying two to three people on average, which we expected because we were still in lockdown," said Dr. Chris Longhurst. "Last summer, when we reopened the state, we saw that jump to six or seven people. This fall, particularly during the holidays, on average, every positive exposure has generated eight to ten anonymous notifications."

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Now with omicron surging, people may be getting notifications for the first time since opting in to CA Notify.

"Many people have forgotten they have turned (the notifications) on their phone," Longhurst said. "But more and more people are receiving them."

Here's how it works:

You have to add CA Notify to your phone. If you have an iPhone it's a matter of activating it, if you have Android you have to download the app.

Using Bluetooth technology, your phone shares anonymous codes with other people who have CA Notify that are within six feet for at least 15 minutes.

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If one of those people ends up testing positive and they share that result with the app, you'll get a notification that gives you step-by-step instructions on what to do next.

Along with first getting a test, it may tell you to quarantine for five days if you think the exposure it's alerting you to was real.

"Getting an alert on your phone doesn't always mean that you've had a true exposure," Longhurst said. "You may have been in a setting where you're masked, you may have been in a setting where the other individual was known to be positive, and you're already aware of this."

The state says that CA Notify does not gather information like your name, contact information, location or the identity of people you meet.

We don't have the ability to track metrics at an individual level only at a population level. However, we're getting lots and lots of stories from individuals who received a positive exposure alert did not have a known exposure, but went and tested and lo and behold, they found they were positive. If they had not tested they would have continued that cycle of transmission.

To find out more about CA Notify, click here.

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