CA Notify

The CA Notify system, as seen on an iPhone.

Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig is frustrated—and not just because she’s still dealing with painful Covid-19 symptoms. Craig is trying to be a good pandemic citizen, and a good role model for her constituents, by putting her positive diagnosis into CA Notify, the mobile phone-based Covid exposure notification system that California launched in early December.

But something isn’t working right.

“Just to be clear, I have tried TWICE now to register with #CANotify of my COVID positive test results, so that others who may have come in contact with me can be notified by their phones,” Craig posted to Facebook on Thursday, Jan. 7. “CA Notify tells me I'm not in their system, and therefore they cannot give me a code to activate the notification.”

CA Notify works by using your phone’s Bluetooth capability to record instances in which your phone is within close range of another phone for longer than 15 minutes. If a user you’ve been close to tests positive for Covid-19, they will get a code from California’s Department of Public Health to put into the app. The app will then send you an anonymous notification, informing you that you’ve potentially been exposed to the virus.

There are many layers of bureaucracy involved in gathering this data, though, as Craig has discovered.

Craig downloaded the CA Notify app to her Samsung Galaxy phone “weeks ago,” she says. And while she has never received an exposure notification she was clearly exposed at some point: She tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday, Jan. 4. 

After receiving her results Craig thought, as one might, that she should report it to CA Notify. “I want to make sure that people understand that it’s anonymous,” she says. “You don’t have to sit there and raise your hand and tell every person you’ve come into contact with.” So she opened the app and called the number listed to get a confirmation code.

But this is where things started to diverge from her expectation. When she called Monday afternoon she was told that her results hadn’t been received by the California Department of Health, the entity that runs CA Notify yet, and therefore they could not give her the confirmation code she would need to record her results in the app. It usually takes the Department around 48 hours to get this information, Craig says she was told.

By Thursday Jan. 7, however, Craig still hadn’t received the text message with a code that the system promises to deliver. She called back, and was again told her results weren’t available.

“I just am incredibly frustrated,” she says. “Here I am trying to really sort of be a part of the system.” She’s also starting to question the utility of a system with these kinds of delays built in—“If the whole point of it is trying to slow the spread, they need to be telling people immediately.”

And while Craig has been isolated since her test results came back, she worries about anyone she might have inadvertently passed within six feet of before. “I’m on day four,” she says. “At this point that’s four days that someone could have been self-quarantining.”

Reached for comment, the California Department of Public Health says, in general, people who use the CA Notify system and test positive for Covid should be able to receive a code within 24 to 72 hours. However, “depending on the type of test, location, and the mechanisms by which laboratories report to CDPH, timing and availability of codes may vary for a small number of cases.”

A challenge with exposure notification systems has always been that it is only as useful as the number of people using it—the Department of Public Health says that as of Jan. 7 over 8.1 million Californians have downloaded or enabled the capability on their phones. But Craig says the timeframe of notification is her biggest concern.

“California has a lot of cases right now,” Craig says. “It seems like a broken system to me.”

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