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Frequently asked questions: COVID Alert SA app

Public health authorities use contact tracing to help control the spread of epidemics and pandemics. The process involves healthcare workers identifying and interviewing people who have contracted a disease to identify their ‘close contacts’: those they have been in close proximity to in the recent past and therefore possibly infected.

  1. Close contacts can be guided to self-quarantine for 10 days to prevent further spread, monitor themselves for symptoms and seek medical care when needed.
  2. Many people who contract COVID‑19 have no symptoms (are asymptomatic) or experience very mild illness. They could unknowingly spread it to others.
    COVID-19 is especially dangerous for those considered at high risk of severe illness like people who have chronic illnesses or the elderly.

Contact tracing is a time-consuming process as it requires many public healthcare experts to interview each person who has contracted COVID‑19 and establish a list of close contacts stretching back 14 days. The person being interviewed needs to remember who they interacted with and know their contact details, which is not possible for people they came into contact with in public places such as the grocery store or public transport.

In 2020, Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps are being deployed in multiple countries. Many of these apps are built on Apple and Google’s exposure notification framework which aims to help governments; health agencies and non-governmental organisations curb the spread of COVID‑19 by using the Bluetooth technology available on mobile devices. User privacy and security are at the core of the design.

  • Read more on the exposure notification platform built by Apple and Google
  • Watch the video published by Apple and Google here

Bluetooth wireless technology allows Bluetooth-enabled devices to connect each other (such as our smartphones to our cars, or to fitness devices, wireless speakers, etc.) using Bluetooth radio waves.

Bluetooth is the platform of choice for contact-tracing apps because it’s a feature available on all smart phones. Bluetooth is a low-power, short-range signal which means it’s likely to detect close contacts well and less likely to encounter an obstacle that blocks the signal between two devices. Bluetooth contact tracing also preserves privacy because it detects your proximity to others and not your actual location.

Yes. In South Africa, the National Department of Health has developed the COVID Alert SA app, which is built using the Apple–Google Exposure Notification application programmable interface (API). The app falls under – the South African government’s COVID‑19 digital support service.

Understanding the COVID Alert SA app

The COVID Alert SA app uses Bluetooth contact-tracing technology to let people know when they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID‑19 (a laboratory test shows they have COVID‑19). It does this in a way that preserves app user privacy and anonymity at all times.

It gives every smartphone user in South Africa the chance to understand their exposure to the virus, so that we can all protect our families and our communities, especially those most at risk of severe disease linked to COVID-19.

The app removes the need for those of us who test positive for COVID-19 to remember and identify everyone we have been in close contact with over the past 14 days.

And app users’ identities are kept private at all times.

By downloading and using the COVID Alert SA app, you become a part of a powerful digital network of app users who choose to work together for the benefit of everyone in the app community while all enjoying complete privacy and anonymity.

As a COVID Alert SA app user you:

  • Understand your COVID‑19 exposure risk. When app users with whom you have had recent close contact anonymously report that a test has shown they have COVID‑19 (to the app), you soon receive an exposure notification alert so that you know you’ve had contact with someone who has COVID‑19.
  • Are guided as to the next steps you should take. People who have been potentially exposed to COVID‑19 are encouraged to self-quarantine and; therefore, help to curb the further spread of the virus.
  • Keep your loved ones and those in your wider community safe from COVID‑19 – particularly those who are considered to be in the high-risk category for severe illness if they contract COVID‑19 (such as those who live with chronic illness, who are immunocompromised, cancer survivors and people older than 60).
  • Ultimately contribute to avoiding a resurgence of COVID‑19 in South Africa, protecting South Africa’s healthcare services and vulnerable people, and ending the pandemic.
  1. COVID Alert SA uses Bluetooth signals to exchange random codes (numbers that change several times a day) with other COVID Alert SA app users when they’re within two metres of each other, for more than 15 minutes. It’s like the smartphones have given each other a digital handshake.
  2. This process happens whether app users are near to other app users that they know or strangers, at the shops in a queue, or on public transport.
  3. The random codes exchanged at the time of the digital handshake are stored in a log on each phone for two weeks.
  4. The app never exchanges the identity and location of app users. It only senses proximity of smartphone devices to one another and the amount of time they were in contact.
  5. If a test shows that an app user is confirmed COVID‑19 positive, they can choose to anonymously report this information to the app community. That kicks off the Bluetooth-based contact-tracing process.
  6. Their smartphone uploads the random codes that it has on record from the past two weeks to the Exposure Notification Server.
  7. The Server sends these random codes to all of other app users.
  8. Each app user’s device runs through these random codes to check for a match between these codes and the codes it has stored in the past two weeks (every time it has come into contact with another device using the COVID Alert SA app).
  9. If there is a match, the device notifies the user that they have potentially been exposed to COVID‑19, also sharing the date on which they were in contact with someone who has tested positive.
  10. App users also receive information on what to do next: while on self-quarantine for 10 days, watching for symptoms of COVID‑19, keeping others safe and on how to optimise their health and wellbeing.
  11. This happens in a way that always preserves the privacy of every app user .

 For more information, see this Apple and Google document or this Apple and Google video explaining how exposure notifications work.

You may be familiar with other so-called ‘crowd-sourcing’ apps that rely on user-generated information that is (often anonymously) shared with other app users for the good of all. Waze and Google Maps, Uber and Airbnb are some examples of this sort of app technology. Users share their information on traffic, the quality of an Uber driver’s service, or of Airbnb accommodation into the system, and other app users can make better decisions based on the community’s feedback.

The COVID Alert SA app works in the same way. The app asks users to choose to anonymously share that they have contracted COVID‑19, and this information is used to inform other app users of their potential exposure to the disease so that they can act to protect their loved ones and others.

The more people in South Africa use the COVID Alert SA app, the faster we will progress to overcoming the pandemic. Studies show that Bluetooth contact-tracing apps help to significantly slow the rate of COVID‑19 transmission and support countries to emerge from lockdowns safely as restrictions ease.

A team at Oxford University has found that if only 60% of people within a population use a contact-tracing app alongside other interventions, this has the potential to stop the pandemic and to help keep countries out of lockdown. The Oxford University team also published some of their findings in the prestigious Science journal.

Downloading the COVID Alert SA app

What do I need to know about downloading the COVID ALERT SA app?

  • This app is free.
  • Anyone in South Africa who has a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone with Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 or later versions can use it.
  • Downloading the app is quick and easy – it’s under 3 MB in size.
  • It doesn’t feature in-app purchases.
  • The app is available in English.
  • The app is only available for download on mobile smartphones.
  • The app can be downloaded and installed by anyone who is in South Africa (you do not need to be a South African citizen) who uses a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone running on Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 or a later version.
  • Children must be aged 13 or older to use the app.

 You can download the app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

The COVID Alert SA app can only be downloaded to a smartphone that has Bluetooth and that meets the operating system requirements.

However, the National Department of Health offers a COVIDConnect digital support service that works on any mobile phone (including feature phones) and offers news and information, a risk-assessment tool, COVID‑19 test results by WhatsApp or SMS as well as contact tracing and referral to the nearest quarantine or healthcare facility.

  • To access COVIDConnect, add ‘0600123456’ to your phone’s contacts and type ‘hello’ on WhatsApp. If you do not have a smartphone, dial *134*832# and follow the prompts.
  • To access your lab results on COVIDConnect add ‘0820468553’ to your phonebook and send ‘Results’ on WhatsApp and follow the prompts.

Both the COVID Alert SA app and COVIDConnect platforms function without infringing on a user’s privacy. COVIDConnect is for informing close contacts that you remember and for whom you have contact details, while COVID Alert SA app will help you inform other app users who came into close contact at public places for whom you may not know contact details. Both COVIDConnect and COVID Alert SA app informs close contacts anonymously.

Setting up and using the COVID Alert SA app

Once you have downloaded and opened the app, you will be prompted to enable exposure notifications (to send and receive notifications) on the app. You do not need to enter any personal information on the app. The app will begin to run in the background all the time. You can use other apps at the same time.

If the app is not working correctly or if your settings are incorrect, you’ll receive a notification to alert you that there is a problem.

The app needs the following to run:

  • Bluetooth must always be on (don’t worry its low energy, it uses minimal amount of battery)
  • Allow the app to refresh in the background
  • It is recommended that your mobile network is turned on or that you are connected to a Wi-Fi network while you use the app
  • The app will work in the background without mobile network or Wi-Fi access, but you will only receive exposure notifications once you re-connect to a mobile or Wi-Fi network
  • The COVID Alert SA app does not require your location to run, nor does it record your location at any point while it runs. Google and Apple have built-in safeguards to make sure that government contact-tracing apps cannot work out your location.
    • Android users note: At the time of the COVID Alert SA app release, Android device users need to give permission to use their location for Bluetooth and the Exposure Notifications system to run. Google is working on decoupling Bluetooth and location permissions in a future release. Read more about managing your Android device’s location settings.

 No. As long as the app is running in the background and Bluetooth is turned on, it will function as it should.

The COVID Alert SA app will use a minimal amount of your smartphone battery.

Receiving an exposure alert via the COVID Alert SA app

 When you open the app, you see NO EXPOSURES FOUND and a green radar screen.

You will be sent a notification to tell you that you have been potentially exposed to COVID‑19.

When you open the app, you see an orange radar screen along with a “Possible Exposure” description. Clicking on it will show you the date on which you came into contact with an app user who has anonymously reported they have COVID‑19. You will be given the next steps to take– advice on self-quarantine for 10 days, on monitoring your symptoms and on accessing the 24-Hour 0800 029 999 National COVID-19 Hotline number.

The COVID Alert SA app runs an advanced algorithm that measures and records:

  • How long your device had Bluetooth contact with another device that has the COVID Alert SA app installed
  • The Bluetooth signal strength between your devices as a way to determine how far apart the devices are. This method is used to estimate the distance between users.
  • The date that the devices had Bluetooth contact

You have had definite contact with someone who has COVID‑19. The fact that you had sufficient contact with a person who tested positive to warrant an exposure alert means your risk of exposure to COVID‑19 is very high.

 No. Your privacy is preserved at all times and your identity will never be revealed to any party.

Reporting that I have tested positive for COVID-19 to the COVID Alert SA app

Users can voluntarily and anonymously alert others if a test shows they have COVID‑19. The process makes sure the user’s privacy is always maintained.

Yes. It is up to each app user to report their diagnosis. Remember that you remain anonymous at all times. Your close contact will not be provided any detail other than the date of contact, so they know how many days they would need to quarantine.

By going to “Alert Others”, you will be able to select “Alert others of close contact”. You will remain anonymous. You will be asked to enter the unique personal identification number (PIN) the National Department of Health sent you along with your COVID‑19 test result, as well as your date of birth – these details are required to safeguard your unique PIN and to make sure your test result is valid.

You will then be asked to share your device’s random codes from the past 14 days to initiate the process of notifying others app users that they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and that they may have been exposed to COVID‑19 as a result.

You will finally be directed to a “Diagnosis shared” screen. You will also be asked to assist the National Department of Health by going to the COVID Alert SA WhatsApp tool to help to identify people you have been in contact with over the past 14 days. You will receive instructions as to what to do next.

You will be guided to self-isolate, to monitor your symptoms and to seek medical care if symptoms start or get worse.

The COVID Alert SA app, Apple and Google will not receive identifying information about you or your location data, or information about any other devices you have been close to.

 No. You can decide to share your results or not and your privacy is maintained at all times. But we encourage you because your close contacts would not know they are exposed and therefore should quarantine.

You will only ever be asked to enter personal details into the app if you lose the unique PIN the National Department of Health sent you with your positive COVID‑19 test result and attempt to retrieve it. This functionality will only be available in future versions of the COVID Alert SA app.

Permissions and Privacy

The COVID Alert SA app puts user privacy at the forefront of its exposure notification technology’s design and has established strict guidelines to make sure that privacy is safeguarded in line with the best practice international security standards.

This is evident in that:

  • You can choose to download and activate the COVID Alert SA app or not.
  • COVID Alert SA is built on Apple and Google’s exposure notification framework, which is intended for use only by public health authority apps.
  • The user can turn off the technology at any time.
  • This app does not collect location data from your device.
  • Users are in control of the decision to send and receive exposure notifications.
  • People who volunteer to share that their positive COVID-19 test result to the COVID Alert SA app are never identified by the system to other users, Apple or Google, the National Department of Health or South African government, or any app-related parties.

Accessing technical support

Should you encounter any technical issues or require assistance, you may send the technical team a message using the form below
nb: this form is only for queries related to the COVID Alert App.