Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My cellphone should have buzzed with a coronavirus emergency alert

Graphical representation of an emergency alert on a cellphone. (FEMA) (FEMA)

I live in Maryland, and in the midst of one of the worst emergencies of our time, I have yet to receive any government alert on my cellphone regarding covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Friends and colleagues in the District and Northern Virginia tell me the same thing.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continue to increase at an alarming rate both locally and nationally, the same system that allows government officials to send extreme weather and AMBER alerts to mobile devices can and should be used immediately by states, localities and perhaps the president in the fight against the deadly virus.

Too many people still aren’t taking this crisis seriously enough, as was evident by the crowds visiting the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin this weekend, by the young people seen gathering in large groups on spring break in Florida, and by numerous other reports of people ignoring social distancing rules across the country and the world.

If strict, immediate and widespread adherence to social distancing is our best hope of flattening the curve and potentially saving tens of thousands of lives, as both government officials and health experts have said, including the U.S. surgeon general on Monday morning, then such guidance should be delivered as soon as possible to every cellphone in the District, Maryland and Virginia, and any other state that hasn’t done so. The timing is urgent with models showing many states fast approaching the point of no return to prevent hospital overload.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts system was launched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2012 to deliver emergency messages for extreme weather, missing children and other imminent threats. These alerts, which can be targeted at specific geographic areas, look like a text message and include a special tone and vibration. The system also can be used to send a nationwide “Presidential Alert.”

The National Weather Service issues these alerts in the most dangerous of weather situations to get the attention of people who may not be tuned into local media or subscribed to a weather alerting service. Many residents in the D.C. area have received such alerts for tornado and flash flood warnings in recent years.

Those shrieking flash-flood alerts on your phone? Expect fewer of them.

According to FEMA, Wireless Emergency Alerts are important because “alerts received at the right time can help keep you safe during an emergency. With WEA, warnings can be sent to your mobile device when you may be in harm’s way, without the need to download an app or subscribe to a service.” In this particular emergency, alerts urging social distancing would help protect not only the recipient but also reduce the chance of spreading the virus to others.

The WEA system was designed for critical situations such as the one we find ourselves in today. In fact, a monthly “tip” for emergency managers posted by FEMA last week states that WEAs may be used to distribute public safety information on covid-19. A FEMA spokesperson told The Washington Post in an email that as of early Monday morning, 22 agencies across 12 states and one territory have used WEAs or the Emergency Alert System, which delivers emergency alerts over television and radio, to send local emergency information about covid-19.

None of those agencies is in the District, Maryland or Virginia, according to a list provided by FEMA.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other state and local leaders across the nation who have yet to do so should issue WEAs — and not wait until if and when they issue a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Such an alert would communicate social distancing orders and explain that staying home or six feet away from others is the only way to slow the spread of the virus, keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed, save thousands of lives and allow all of us to return to normal life sooner.

From 2012, for historical perspective: Emergency weather alerts coming soon to a cellphone near you

I would argue the scope and seriousness of this emergency may warrant a nationwide presidential alert, a capability first tested by FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission in 2018. But just as some state and local leaders across the country have taken bold action against the virus amid a sluggish federal response, so, too, must they be proactive in using this available technology to save lives, regardless of whether the president does.

We should be using every tool at our disposal to get the message out in this war against a deadly pandemic, especially a tool designed to do just that during disasters much like the one unfolding before our very eyes.