Keep Hot Vax Summer from Becoming a No Fun Fall: Setting Up Exposure Notifications

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Recently, I covered my and my husband’s experiences with using the COVID Vaccine Locator through the Washington State Department of Health – you can check out our experiences here!

Now that it’s been a few months since we received our vaccine, our work isn’t quite done. After all, even though we’re vaccinated, the Delta variant is spreading rapidly. Breakthrough infections, while less likely to lead to hospitalization or death, aren’t unheard of.

While getting updates from the local news stations about outbreaks in Spokane and the surrounding area can be informative, they can’t tell you the whole picture. They can’t tell you if you personally have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID.

So what can you do? Luckily, finding out if you’ve been exposed is easy – it’s already on your phone!

This article is sponsored by the Washington Department of Health, but all experiences and opinions are my own.

Exposure Notifications

If you’ve recently been in your iPhone or Android Settings, you may have noticed something new: Exposure Notifications (see below for what it looks like on an iPhone):

This is already on your phone, it’s not a new app to download, but you do need to activate it if you want to be notified of your COVID exposure.

What is this notification exactly? WA Exposure Notifications, known as WANotify, allows users to find out if they’ve had an exposure to COVID-19 – without sharing any personal information. It will also anonymously alert those they’ve come in contact with if they test positive.

Of course, it only works if people activate the exposure notification – which is very simple to do, but does require you to accomplish a few, easy steps. 

How to Set Up Washington Exposure Notifications

Once you click on Exposure Notifications, you’ll be prompted to set up Exposure Notifications on your phone. This is what it looked like using the iPhone version:

Click ‘Continue’ to learn about how exposure notifications work. Basically, your phone will use Bluetooth to keep a 14 day log. If you or someone else using the Exposure Notifications app anonymously reports a COVID diagnosis, you’ll be notified (again, it’s all anonymous!) that you came into contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID. 

From there, you’ll let the app know you’re in Washington, US, and you’ll accept the Washington State Department of Health’s terms (below.)

At this point, you can turn on Exposure Notifications for alerts from your phone, or leave them off.

You can see I chose to enable Exposure Notifications, because I’d like to know if I am exposed to someone with COVID. You also always have the option to share your positive COVID diagnosis, should you get one, as it does help public health workers slow the spread by identifying exposures and notifying others.

You’ll also be prompted to share analytics with the Washington State Department of Health, including analytics about how the app itself is working. This is similar to those ‘bug reports’ you’ll get for other apps and on your computer – it’s up to you to Share that info or not!

Once you’ve set up Exposure Notifications, this is what your Exposure Notifications screen will look like. Simple and ready to go!

Why Set Up WA Notify?

You’re probably wondering: why should I, a vaccinated person, set up WA Notify? While breakthrough COVID cases are uncommon (representing about 0.098% of those fully vaccinated, according to ABC News), that percent is still higher than 0%!

And while getting severely ill from COVID after having the vaccine is low, it’s still not impossible. Even mild COVID cases can still knock you out for a few days – and no one really knows what the long term effects are after getting COVID, so isn’t it best to avoid getting it if possible?

Perhaps the best reason to turn on WA Notify, even if you’re vaccinated and go very few places (as we still do!), is for everyone who can’t yet get vaccinated. Children, immune-compromised individuals – I still have family members (mostly the very young now) who can’t get the vaccine. 

If I’m exposed to COVID, I may or may not have symptoms – but I most certainly could become a vector, and while I think I’m “safe” to visit my 9 year old nephew, I’m really not.

I would rather know I had been exposed and then take my own precautions (masking up or remaining at home) than never know and potentially infect my loved ones.

In addition, holidays are right around the corner! If you’re planning on visiting loved ones for the holidays, it would be great to know ahead of time you weren’t exposed to anyone with COVID. The more people use the Exposure Notification tool, the better it will work to identify any outbreaks.

Getting an early warning of a potential exposure can help you protect others you interact with, both before and after these events.

In short, set up WA Notify. Do it for yourself and for those in your life who can’t get the vaccine yet!

But What About My Privacy?

As someone who studied cybersecurity and Homeland Security, no one is more interested in protecting privacy than I am. Also, like many Millennials, I don’t love the idea of sharing what I do with faceless entities (which is pretty funny if you think about how many Millennials and Gen Z’ers use social media every day without much thought to privacy!)

That said, the biggest takeaway I’ve learned is anonymized data. Yes, WA Notify is making a log of what’s going on via Bluetooth, but your personal data is all anonymous – you’re a number, a small part in thousands of numbers being analyzed (fun fact: more than 2 million people have already set up Exposure Notifications!)

WA Notify doesn’t share location data from your device with any public health authority, Apple, or Google. Your identity is also not shared with other users, the public health authorities, Google or Apple (see: your anonymized data.)

Still not sure? Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • It’s your choice to turn on or off exposure notifications: WA Notify users decide to turn on or off exposure notifications and decide whether they want to anonymously report a positive diagnosis.
  • On Device: Matching for exposure notifications is decentralized and only done on device.
  • You can always disable notifications! Remember your Exposure Notifications screen? You can always simply click “Turn Off Exposure Notifications” and even delete your log history in that section! (see below)

Summary: Setting Up WA Notify is Easy – and Helps Our Whole Community

If you don’t want our Hot Vax Summer to turn into a No Fun Fall, we still have to rally together as a community and do the right thing. Many of us have gone ahead and gotten the vaccine, but the onus is still on us to monitor our exposure to others who may carry the virus and pass it on to us. 

While we, the vaccinated, may not be hospitalized or become gravely ill, we could take it to our loved ones who aren’t yet vaccinated (like kids and immune-compromised individuals!)

In my opinion, I’d rather know I was exposed to COVID and take my own precautions to keep my loved ones safe, than to never know, possibly become asymptomatically infected, and take it around town. Nothing is worse knowing you got someone sick when you could have prevented it!

As far as privacy, data is anonymized and not shared with any health entity or your contacts list in your phone. Think about the data collected as more informational – if several people note they became infected with COVID, the data analyzes where this took place: was there an event or cluster where this happened?

This information helps scientists and analysts pinpoint problems and notify people exposed. If you were exposed, you take it from there! It’s up to you – this is just a tool for health experts to help keep us all safe and pinpoint outbreaks. 

Not yet vaccinated? You can find the vaccine type and location nearest you using the Department of Health’s Vaccine Locator!

Here’s to a continued hot vax summer and safe, fun, and healthy fall!

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