By Dr Sheri Fanaroff MBBCh FCFP MFamMed, a Family Physician, practicing in Melrose, Johannesburg. Fanaroff is a member of GGPC (Gauteng General Practitioners Collaboration) which has created a platform for doctors to share resources during Covid-19. Look for #voicesthatcare on the GGPC Facebook page.
COVID Alert SA is South Africa’s COVID exposure notification app. It lets people know when they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. It can be used by everyone in SA who has a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. The success of the app relies on a high number of people downloading it. However, there has been much uncertainty about downloading the app – and the security thereof. Here is what you need to know:
How does the COVID alert app work?
- The app tracks proximity (close contact) between smartphones, but not the actual location of the phones. When someone receives a positive test result, they voluntarily open the app and self report that they have been diagnosed positive. To do this, they have to enter their date of birth, and get sent a pin to insert.
- Once the app has received this notification, it notifies all phones that have been in close proximity with your phone – for 14 days prior to the diagnosis – that they may have been exposed. For phones to be considered to be “in contact”, they have to be within two metres of each other for more than 15 minutes.
- When an app user anonymously reports to the app that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the app sends notifications to those devices that were in contact with the exposed person’s device. The exposure notification warns the app users that they could have potentially been exposed to the virus and advises them that they should self quarantine and monitor for symptoms for a ten day period.
- It uses random Bluetooth identifiers which rotate every 10 to 20 minutes, which means that tracking of location cannot occur.
What About Privacy?
- The app is anonymous and does not require users to enter names or identities.
- It does not use GPS and does not track or store your location.
- It does not require access to contacts on your phone.
- In South Africa (as opposed to other countries), downloading the app is voluntary.
Limitations of the COVID Alert App
These are some of the limitations of the app as identified by the GGPC.
- As far as we can ascertain, the app notifies all “close contacts” of the person who has contacted COVID-19 for 14 days prior to the diagnosis. This means that you may get a notification ten or twelve days after being in the vicinity of an affected person – they would only actually be considered contagious for 48 to 72 hours prior to developing symptoms (or 48 to 72 hours prior to a positive test result if asymptomatic).
- The app only gives the date of the contact, not the time nor the location. This makes it difficult to work out where you were and risk of exposure.
- Bluetooth and notifications have to be enabled for the app to work, and your phone has to be connected to a mobile or WiFi network in order to send and receive exposure alerts.
- Many South Africans don’t have access to smartphones.
- South Africans generally tend to be wary of the government and the initiative is viewed by many (not just conspiracy theorists) as a ploy to control and invade privacy. However, social media expert, Emma Sadleir, as well as other tech privacy experts, have come out in support of the app and deem it safe.
- Its efficacy relies on the majority of South Africans downloading it.
- It may give a false sense of security if it shows no exposures.
Should I Download the COVID Alert App?
The benefits of downloading it are that you will
- Receive alerts about exposures from strangers that you might otherwise have been unaware of.
- Receive information about what you should do following an exposure. (It is still your choice to quarantine, nobody knows that you have been advised to do so!) The app also gives guidance on monitoring your symptoms and accessing healthcare if you need it.
- Be aware that you should be cautious particularly around any of your elderly or vulnerable contacts.
- Help to contribute to avoiding a second surge and ending the epidemic in South Africa.
The bottom line is that we would encourage everyone to download and make use of the app – it may be the key to contact tracing and bringing a speedy end to the epidemic. However, even if no alerts are received and you are unaware of exposures, the basic COVID protocols of hand hygiene, wearing masks and social distancing should remain in place.
Download the COVID Alert App for your Smartphone here
Click here to download on android phones
Click here to download on Apple