COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two days after Divya Samu, 27, flew from Cincinnati back home to New York last week, she took a COVID-19 home rapid test because she was feeling ill and tested positive.

The next morning, she received an alert on her iPhone informing her she had been exposed on April 14 or 15, which gave her more confidence in her positive result.

What You Need To Know

  • Most states have enabled exposure notification alert technology

  • Officials in states that aren't using it cited privacy concerns 

  • Apple and Google developed a system for exposure alerts in 2020

“Getting that notification is helpful because even if you think, ‘Oh, I just coughed a couple times,’ or ‘Oh, maybe my throat was a little sore,’ it's a good gut check,” she said. “The exposure notification is a good reminder that COVID still exists, and like maybe take a test.” 

Apple and Google created the “Exposure Notifications System” in 2020, which uses Bluetooth signals to alert users whose phones were in close proximity to the device of someone who reports a positive COVID-19 test to the app. The technology is built into Apple's phone software, but while it’s available in New York, iPhone users in Ohio do not have access. 

When an Ohio user opens the “Exposure Notifications” section of their iPhone settings, a message pops up which says notifications are not currently available because the functionality has not been turned on by the local public health authority. 

According to an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Sept. 2021, more than half of U.S. states have adopted exposure notification technology. Officials in the states that have declined to use the technology cited privacy concerns, among several other reasons, according to the analysis.  

Supporters of the exposure notification technology dismiss the privacy concerns, noting that every user has to opt in to the exposure notification system. The alerts are anonymous and the time of the exposure is given as a window to protect privacy. According to Apple and Google, the tech does not use any location data.

Chris Owens, 47, of Columbus, said he has written to elected officials and health authorities in Ohio making the case for them to enable the exposure alerts. 

“After two years of this going on, I still can't believe that Ohio isn't taking advantage of something that's a free resource to everybody,” he said. “I have no idea why we're dragging our feet on this. It makes no sense.”

Owens said he doesn’t understand the privacy argument given that it’s an opt-in system. 

“No one's twisting anyone's arm and saying, ‘Hey, you have to do this’,” he said. “And even if we turned it on, it's not identifying information that the software is exchanging… It's not like it's exchanging your name. It's not exchanging your email, or your phone number or any of that. All it's doing is exchanging a token.”

In states that allow the technology, exposure notification apps only detect a fraction of COVID-19 exposures because many people don’t opt in to the technology and some people who do participate don’t self-report their diagnoses in the app when they catch the virus.

But Samu said the app helped her confirm that she was exposed to COVID-19, and it led her to think she contracted the virus before she left for her weekend trip to Ohio. 

“If you have your exposure notification settings on, it will basically alert anyone that was close enough to you and that could have been exposed, which narrowed it down for me because I didn't know if I'd gotten it while I was on vacation that weekend, but it confirmed basically that I got exposed to COVID even before I’d left New York,” she said. 

Samu said she had never received an exposure alert prior to last week. She thinks the technology is important at this stage of the pandemic when most people aren’t distancing or wearing masks, and when health departments aren't performing much manual contract tracing.

On her flight back to New York, the stranger sitting next to her wasn’t wearing a mask, though she was. Samu said there was no way for her to try to let him know he should get a test because the exposure tracking would've only been on for a few minutes while she was getting off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport.