COVID-19? Apparently there’s an app for that, too.
At least that is what is being examined at UCSB as, starting Monday, the university will become one of five campuses to join California COVID Notify, a pilot program of a smartphone-based COVID-19 exposure notification system.
The program is a collaboration between the University of California and the state to assess use of the technology on a voluntary basis as a means of reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
The opt-in system, which uses Google/Apple Exposure Notification technology on smartphones, is designed to supplement existing contact tracing protocols to further help limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It will become available statewide in December, according to officials.
UCSB faculty, staff and students will receive a campus-wide memo Monday that will include a link to instructions for opting in to the notification system.
One of the major goals of the pilot program is to determine whether using the new smartphone technology can encourage users to respond to a high-risk exposure more quickly by self-isolating and receiving additional clinical resources, which are viewed as key steps to mitigating the transmission of COVID-19.
The technology uses Bluetooth to enable those who use the system to receive automatic smartphone notifications of potential exposure to other enrolled users who are subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of whether the users know each other.
“This system is beneficial for two reasons,” Dr. Laura Polito, medical director of UCSB’s COVID-19 Response Team and associate medical director at Student Health, said in a statement. “First, if you keep the app running, it will notify you if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, even if you don’t know that person. So, if you were in a restaurant, out exercising or in a social situation and were close enough to someone to be exposed to COVID-19, the app will notify you. Additionally, if you are diagnosed with COVID-19 but you were around other people who you don’t know but who also subscribe to the app, the app will notify them for you. This allows people to find out about the exposure sooner and get tested sooner than they might otherwise.”
Dr. Mary Ferris, the campus’s COVID-19 clinical advisor, said the new tracking app has the potential to “greatly enhance” efforts to identify close contacts from confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Besides being extremely accurate about the contacts, it also provides confidentiality in the notifications, which is a barrier we have encountered frequently when trying to identify close contacts,” she said.
“If we can encourage widespread adoption of the app, it will be most effective and greatly help us find the contacts early in order to advise them on quarantine to prevent further spread of the disease,” she continued. “Just a single case of COVID-19 can result in widespread disease transmission and even death, so this is a noble effort we all should support.”
The technology employs Bluetooth to communicate with other Bluetooth-enabled devices nearby — such as the smartphones of people seated near you in a restaurant or standing in line at a grocery store. When a person joins the notification system, the user’s phone broadcasts a random identification number to other phones in the area. When phones come within six feet of each other, they log one another’s respective ID’s — but with no reference or attachment to names or locations.
If a user of the notification system is diagnosed with COVID-19, that individual can enter a key code indicating a positive test result. This in turn will generate anonymous alerts to other notification system users based on their respective exposures — proximity and length of time — to that individual.
As part of the privacy-first approach, users decide whether they want to share a verified positive test result with the app and determine whether they want to share that with other users.
“It neither gathers nor sends any personal information,” Dr. Polito said. “The university doesn’t know if you have the app unless you choose to share that information. It’s also important to know it does not replace case management and contact tracing, so it is still vital to the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 to cooperate fully with Student Health, the campus’s COVID-19 Response Team and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.”
The pilot program launched earlier this fall with two UC campuses — UC San Diego and UC San Francisco. Joining the program now in addition to UCSB are UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA and UC Riverside. Although the software does not allow tracking of users, UC investigators for the study estimate that more than 20,000 users at the initial two campus locations have activated the software.
“What started six weeks ago with two UC campuses has now grown to the majority of UC campuses,” said Dr. Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health and an infectious disease expert. “Applying this type of innovation to a practical use is part of our mission to improve the health of the people of California. This demonstrates the commitment across the university to battling COVID-19 in collaboration with the State of California.”