California unveils voluntary smartphone tool to trace COVID-19 cases

Nicole Hayden
Palm Springs Desert Sun

California is releasing a voluntary smartphone tool to anonymously alert people if they spent time near someone who tested positive for COVID-19 as cases and hospitalizations escalate throughout the state.

The phone app, called CA Notify, will be available for people to download and use starting on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a press conference Monday.

The tool doesn’t track people’s identities or locations but uses Bluetooth wireless signals to detect when two phones are within 6 feet of each other for at least 15 minutes. The phones store that information. If someone tests positive for the virus, that patient logs the confirmation in the app and it sends out anonymous notifications to each person that the patient came in contact with over the prior two weeks. 

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Sixteen other states, plus Guam and Washington, D.C., have already made available the system co-created by Apple and Google, though most residents of those places aren’t using it. The tool has been used on a pilot basis on University of California campuses.

Newsom said the majority of Californians need to opt-in and use the app for the tool to be effective.

More than 80% of state shut down 

The app comes as the majority of California woke up Monday to new orders from the state not to leave their homes for at least the next three weeks except for essential purposes, forcing restaurants to offer take-out only while limiting retailers to 20% capacity as a surge of new coronavirus cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

The new rules are currently imposed for Southern California and a large swath of the Central Valley, triggered after more than 85% of beds in intensive care units were occupied in those regions. Dropping to so few available beds is concerning for local hospital systems as COVID-19 cases are predicted to continue to increase.

Under the stay-at-home order, California counties have been grouped into five regions graded on their intensive care unit capacities. Areas that see ICU capacity drop under 15% will have 24 hours to implement the new order. 

As of Monday, the available ICU capacity by region was:

  • Bay Area: 25.7%
  • Greater Sacramento: 20.3%
  • Northern California: 28.2%
  • San Joaquin Valley: 6.3%
  • Southern California: 10.9%

The state's new rules blanket more than 80% of the state's population, and they took effect one day after California announced more than 30,000 new coronavirus cases — the most ever reported statewide in a single day.

Outside of the state mandate, five San Francisco Bay Area counties voluntarily imposed the restrictions instead of waiting for their ICU capacity to fall to dangerously low numbers. Their restrictions will last until Jan. 4, a week longer than the state's timeline.

All non-essential travel is restricted statewide for non-Californians. Travel is restricted to just essential infrastructure workers for regions under the stay-at-home order.

State sends extra staff to SoCal

The orders are aimed to address the growing number of COVID-19 hospitalized patients. There are currently more than 10,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations across California as of Monday, Newsom said. This is a 72% increase from two weeks ago. During that same time, coronavirus ICU patients increased 69%.

In the past month, the state’s positivity rate rose from 3.4% to 8.4%. Newsom said the state strives for a 5% positivity rate to keep stability among hospital capacity.

The governor said the low number of available beds is less concerning as the state has built out contingency plans that allow additional beds to be set up. The biggest concern is staffing for the beds.

In response to the resource gap, the state has requested 815 additional medical staff to be deployed throughout the state. Most of those individuals will arrive on Dec. 14 and will initially be sent to Imperial County and Northern California.

Of the 815, 435 individuals will be used for ICU strike teams, 300 will be used for skilled nursing facilities and 70 will offer behavioral health services.

“Human resources will be the most challenging for every state to address,” Newsom said. “How we get enough people that are not fatigued, not exhausted, that we haven’t asked too much from? … We need to staff all of these (pop-up) beds.”

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Additionally, the state has launched other programs to take the pressure off hospital systems. Starting this week, stable patients will be allowed to be transferred to their homes to continue their recovery. They will be provided with oxygen and paramedic support. The program will target parts of Southern California, allowing services for 100 patients in Imperial County and 100 between Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Newsom said Riverside County is “experiencing rather significant rates of growth” in terms of its COVID-19 positivity rate, while San Bernardino County is “feeling pressure on ICU capacity.”

Cases began to rise throughout California in October, largely due to people ignoring safety measures and socializing with others. The current uptick in COVID-19 cases is likely only the start of a much larger surge, which officials expect to hit in the next few weeks due to holiday activities and gatherings. 

Already, the case levels are far above those recorded during a summer peak or even in March, when a state public health order restricted people from going outside except for the most essential reasons. That order was later eased.

Associated Press contributed to this report. Desert Sun reporter Nicole Hayden covers health in California. She can be reached at Nicole.Hayden@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4623. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.