Virtual COVID-19 Utah checkpoints activated, but alerts received far from the border

ST. GEORGE — The alert system designed to notify travelers entering the state at two points crossing the Utah-Arizona border to fill out a COVID-19 declaration was activated Friday, but many far from the border in Southern Utah have reported receiving the alerts multiple times.

A screenshot of the alert received by mobile phones alerting motorists crossing the Utah-Arizona border to fill out a COVID-19 declaration. | Screenshot, St. George News

The state’s Office of Emergency Management activated the alert system designed to be a virtual checkpoint at the state ports of entry at 12:37 p.m., Friday. 

The system, as designed, uses geofencing zones at the Utah-Arizona border on northbound I-15 and on U.S. Highway 89 near Kanab. A text is sent to the cell phones of those crossing the border areas directing them to fill out a form at once they are in a position where it is safe to do so. Officials also said it is designed to go off once in 24 hours. 

However, many residents reported receiving the alert texts that are usually accompanied by a loud emergency alert sound similar to a weather warning or Amber Alert at points of Southern Utah far from the border with Arizona, including in Santa Clara and near Dixie State University. They also reported receiving it multiple times.

“It is meant to be increasingly precise, but there are times a cell tower outside the area may receive the message and broadcast,” Joe Dougherty, spokesperson for the Utah Division of Emergency Management said. “If your phone receives this alert one time, it will not receive it again.” 

St. George News tested the alerts with different carriers – including driving to Littlefield, Arizona and back to St. George –  and the results were hit and miss depending on the carrier. The alerts were most likely to be received on T-Mobile/Sprint phones and were not received at all on Verizon phones. 

In addition, the T-Mobile phones received alerts multiple times including far from the state line in Santa Clara. 

Dougherty said glitches are to be expected but will be worked out in the coming days.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a news conference in the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 12, 2020 | Photo by Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via Associated Press, St. George News

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday when announcing the checkpoints, the aim will be to help track and trace COVID-19 infections that may arise from persons who enter the state from national or international travel. State officials said it is meant to be voluntary, even though it was issued as an order from the governor for everyone entering from outside the state to fill out. 

“Is everyone going to comply? Probably not, but we think a majority will because it’s the right thing to do,” Herbert said Thursday. “We won’t send the police out if people don’t comply.”

Four more cases were added to the count of 52 COVID-19 cases in Southern Utah Friday, with all four being in Washington County, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Iron County continues to be without any new cases since Sunday.

Anyone 18 years of age or older entering the state at those crossings will be asked to fill out the digital declaration form stating the following: their name, address, phone number and e-mail; if they have been tested for the COVID-19 virus in the last two weeks; if they have shortness of breath, cough or fever; if they are a Utah resident, visitor or out-of-state worker; and where they have traveled in the last two weeks.

The data gathered will be sent securely to the Utah Department of Health.

Jess Anderson, Utah’s Commissioner of Public Safety, said exemptions to the order have been made for those that are commercial truck drivers, active military, health care providers and workers going back and forth across the state line. Even then, they are expected to report if they have been confirmed as having the virus. 

“We’re not having to use manpower,” Anderson said. “If we get good results, that is something we will pay attention to and adjust as needed.”

Traffic through the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Arizona Department of Transportation, St. George News

According to Dougherty, the system uses a zone emanating from a zone near certain cell towers near the nine designated areas set for the checkpoints in the state. It utilizes the Web EOC software system already used by the state’s Office of Emergency Management as well as the national Federal Emergency Management Association for other alerts broadcast to mobile phones.  

“It’s very simple. We draw shapes on a map and send out the 90-character message,” Dougherty said, adding that it is a one-way communication and nothing is sent back from people’s phones. “The system does not track your data at all. We won’t even know how many people receive the message.”

In the case of the port of entry on the southern edge of St. George, Dougherty said the zone includes part of Arizona in the Virgin River Gorge. “We worked with our partners in Arizona,” Dougherty said.

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count

Positive COVID-19 tests: 52, including 1 death and 25 recoveries.

  • Washington County: 35
  • Iron County: 13
  • Garfield County: 1
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Hospitalized: 4

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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