One of the unpleasant technological reminders of the pandemic is fading away. States have turned off COVID-19 exposure notifications on iPhones across the US now that the public emergency has expired. At least some states also appear to be shutting down notifications for Android users. You won’t get alerts if you approach someone who tested positive and reported their results. No personal data traded hands, as the system relied on anonymized Bluetooth exchanges rather than GPS.
California and other states chalk up the decision to a combination of vaccines, wide immunity and effective treatments. The risks of serious illness have declined, according to officials. Omicron variants have also been less severe than early strains. Simply put, there isn’t as much need for exposure alerts.
The technology was first announced in April 2020 as Apple and Google raced to create a common approach to exposure notification in the early days of the pandemic. The initial notifications came through states’ individual apps beginning in August that year, but OS updates in September brought an Exposure Notifications Express feature to many Android and iOS devices. This theoretically reduced infections by getting people to stay home in the event of possible contact.
That’s not how the exposure notifications worked in practice, however. Researchers determined that the rollout was fragmented. As there wasn’t a nationwide protocol early on, states either implemented their own COVID-19 alerts or delayed launches. A user from one state might not get an exposure warning if they came close to someone from another state. Only 26 states released apps to make full use of notifications, and just 36 million Americans had either installed an app or enabled Exposure Notifications Express as of May 2021. While there’s evidence the tech prevented cases (Washington State’s app may have prevented 5,500 cases in its first four months), most of the population wasn’t sharing data.
That’s not to say the exercise was pointless. California’s Department of Public Health says it’s still studying the benefits of the state’s app, and the findings from the COVID-19 response could help deal with future diseases. Don’t be surprised if health agencies and tech companies are better prepared going forward.