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Californians Navigate the Latest Tool in Fight Against COVID

State officials are hopeful the digital tool will help slow the spread of the coronavirus by giving people the information they need to quickly isolate and test after coming in contact with the fast-spreading disease.

by Lyndsay Winkley, The San Diego Union-Tribune / December 11, 2020
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(TNS) — Californians are now able to conscript their cellphones in the fight against COVID-19.

On Thursday, the state officially launched CA Notify, a system that sends smartphone alerts to people who've spent time with someone who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

This free technology is coming online as regions across the state grapple with climbing COVID-19 case totals and higher-than-ever hospitalization numbers. State officials are hopeful the digital tool will help slow the spread of the coronavirus by giving people the information they need to quickly isolate and test after coming in contact with the fast-spreading disease.

The system also has the ability to augment traditional contact-tracing methods, which rely on an infected person's ability to accurately remember and be able to identify everyone they may have exposed.

But technology like this only works if people opt-in.

"We want all Californians to add their phone to the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 because the tool works best when more people sign up," said Dr. Erica Pan, California's acting public health officer, in a statement. "Combined with other actions like physical distancing and wearing masks, CA Notify helps Californians anonymously keep themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe."

State officials didn't say how many people enabled the notifications on Thursday, but they are shooting for more robust adoption rates than those seen in other states that have unveiled similar exposure notification systems.

The campaign to get people to opt in will involve an encompassing educational campaign involving universities, doctors and even celebrities. On Thursday, Alyssa Milano and Zoey Deschanel, two well-known actresses, Tweeted out their support for the program.

Here's what you need to know about the state's COVID-19 exposure alert system.

How do I opt in to CA Notify?Currently, the system only works on Apple and Google smartphones, specifically any iPhone that can support iOS 13.7 and all phones with Android Version 6 (API 23) or above.

For iPhone users:

Update your iOS to version 13.7 or later.Go into your phone's settings, and scroll to Exposure Notifications.Turn them on. Select United States and California as your country and state. For Android users:

Download the CA Notify app in the Google Play Store. How does CA Notify work?CA Notify and other exposure notification systems harness the power of Bluetooth technology to exchange randomly generated and constantly changing codes with the phones of people who've opted into the program.

The strength of the signal helps approximate how close people are, and when phones come within 6 feet of one another for at least 15 minutes, they log one another's code.

If someone later tests positive for the coronavirus, a health official who has verified the diagnosis will provide an exposure notification key for the infected person to enter into his or her phone. This gives the system permission to alert everyone the infected person made contact with in the 14 days before getting sick.

Is the state or any other entity able to collect personal information from these exchanges?No. The system doesn't use or store personally identifiable information or location data. Instead, it uses Bluetooth technology to exchange randomly generated codes that aren't associated with phone numbers, your location, etc., with other program users.

These codes also change every 15 minutes to protect your identity. After 14 days, or once an alert is triggered, the codes are permanently erased.

How does the system know if I have COVID-19? The system will only know of your positive test result if you you tell it. After you've received a positive test result, a health entity that has verified your diagnosis will offer you an exposure notification key. You can then choose to input that into the system to let others know of your diagnosis.

How will I receive a verification code if I test positive? If you provided a cellphone number when you got tested, you will receive the code via a text message from the California Department of Public Health - the text will come from (855) 976-8462. If you didn't provide your cellphone number during the testing process, you can call the program's help desk for assistance at (888) 421-9457.

If I test positive and share my diagnosis, will my identity be shared with others?No. When you input the exposure notification key, any phones that you were within 6 feet of for 15 minutes or more during your infectious period will receive notification of a possible exposure. While the notification tells other users the date of their exposure, it does not include information about location, time or the person who exposed them.

Is CA Notify a contact-tracing app?No, but the system could boost contact-tracing efforts by sending exposure notifications to people you may not know.

Contact tracing involves identifying the close contacts of someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, and then reaching out to those individuals by phone, email or text to inform them of their possible exposure. CA Notify doesn't track or trace information about people you come into contact with and it doesn't collect or exchange personal information.

How long does CA Notify take to inform users of a possible exposure? It takes less than a day to be notified from the time someone you've been exposed to submits their positive result. You can be notified of any exposure that happened within the last 14 days.

What happens when I get a notification?You will receive an alert on your cellphone with instructions on self-isolation and testing.

Will exposure notifications affect my battery life or data plan? The system was designed to use Bluetooth and data minimally and should not have a noticeable impact on battery life or data usage.

Will CA Notify be available in languages other than English? Yes! CA Notify is available in 15 different languages: Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, English, Farsi, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Pashto, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese and Western Armenian.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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