SALT LAKE CITY — If you were driving into Utah over the weekend, you probably received this text: “Governor’s order: Arriving in Utah? Fill out a COVID declaration,” with a link to complete a “health declaration form.”
Or maybe you received the same emergency text alert while sitting in your home, 70 miles west of the Utah-Colorado border.
“It was horrible, I was getting texts about every five minutes,” said Kae Done, who lives in Myton, about an hour west of Vernal. “Today it finally stopped, but on the first day I think I erased over 80 messages.”
The alerts stopped because the Utah Division of Emergency Management on Monday axed its new program that sent text alerts to anyone driving across the Utah border, part of Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive order to monitor the health of out-of-state travelers flying and driving into the Beehive State.
To issue the alerts, the division identified certain areas around the Utah border on a map, then notified FEMA, which automatically contacted wireless carriers to then push the notification to their customers any time they entered one of the regions. The instant process is similar to how the state issues AMBER alerts, which are louder and designed to grab more attention than a regular text message.
About 35% of the people who received a text completed the health declaration form, according to Joe Dougherty, Division of Emergency Management public information officer.
But the program alerted far more people than what was intended. While the 80-plus messages sent to Done was an anomaly, residents in St. George, the Uinta Basin and other border areas received the text alerts, many of whom took to social media to voice their concerns.
Got it on the road outside of Heber City. Not near a state line. iPhone.— Bethany (@mylivenatural) April 13, 2020
I get one whenever I pass 1400 N 600 E in Logan. My wife does not get one. iPhone on AT&T.— Jacob Mattson (@backcountryjerk) April 11, 2020
“We knew that this was going to be kind of an experiment and we were trying to do something innovative,” said Dougherty. “For the folks in the Uinta Basin, for those in St. George and those in Oneida County, Idaho, we apologize to you for the number of messages that you received when you were not supposed to receive them. But please know this was something we were trying to do in good faith.”
Not only was the program plagued with bugs, but it triggered a flurry of misinformation on social media, with people accusing the division of spying and collecting their personal information.
“The system doesn’t go by cellphone numbers, it just goes by area. ... And that’s a partnership between the wireless carriers and the government,” Dougherty said.
“There are people here in government that are working for (everyone’s) best interests and trying to do everything we can to keep the state safe,” Dougherty said. “Everyone is working overtime on this right now.”
The program is still active, just not the text alerts. Anyone crossing the border into Utah will still see a sign asking them to fill out the health declaration form, and those flying into the Salt Lake City International Airport will still receive a postcard asking them to do the same.
While the form is voluntary, Utah Department of Health officials hope the program will help monitor travel-related COVID-19 cases. Some of the Beehive State’s first cases were travel-related, turning vacation hot spots — like Park City — into coronavirus hotspots.
“I understand the reasoning behind it and I understand wanting to track people coming into the state,” said Done, who told the Deseret News that she gets nervous every time she sees an out-of-state license plate pass through her small town.
“I just want to say, ‘Go home people!’ We need to take this social distancing thing really seriously.”