UC Campuses Pilot a Smartphone App that Aims to Limit Spread of COVID-19

Masked woman in airport

By Sandra Baltazar Martinez and Andrea Estrada. After a successful deployment at UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, five more UC campuses are joining California COVID Notify, a pilot program of a smartphone-based COVID-19 exposure notification system.

The program is a collaboration between UC and the State of California to assess use of the technology on a voluntary basis as a means of reducing the spread of the virus.

The opt-in system, which uses Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) 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.

“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.”

Using privacy-first technology to stem the spread of COVID-19

A major goal of the pilot program is to determine whether using this smartphone technology can encourage users to respond to a high-risk exposure more quickly by self-isolating and receiving additional clinical resources, which are key 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,” said Dr. Laura Polito, medical director of UC Santa Barbara’s COVID-19 Response Team and associate medical director at Student Health. “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.”

The effort uses Google/Apple Exposure Notification, or GAEN, technology on smartphones to supplement the essential work of contact tracers and help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Helping slow the spread of the virus is a crucial step in keeping our communities safe,” said Andres Gonzalez, chief medical officer with UCR Health. “Our students, staff, faculty, and the entire Inland Empire community are our priority. We are proud to participate in this statewide pilot program. Using technology to slow COVID-19 is an innovative and powerful way to fight this pandemic.”

The program allows those who volunteer to use the technology to receive automatic smartphone notifications of a potential exposure to other enrolled users diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of whether the users know one another. As part of the privacy-first approach, users decide whether they want to share a verified positive test result with the app and with other users. State and university epidemiologists are reviewing the results of the pilot to determine how to optimize the smartphone-based technology and whether it should be rolled out more broadly.

“We are committed to keeping our campus community safe and joining this effort is one way of doing so,” said Denise Woods, UC Riverside’s assistant vice chancellor of Health, Counseling and Wellness. “Applying this type of innovation to a practical use is part of our mission. We want to be part of a team that’s helping battle COVID-19 and in turn improve the health of all California residents.”

Expanding the app to a diverse California demographic

UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, along with their respective health campuses, began the pilot earlier this fall, and California public health authorities authorized an expansion to additional UC locations. As a result, the pilot will be expanded to a more demographically diverse set of students, faculty and staff, and will provide additional scale for evaluating clinical success.

The locations joining the program are: UC Riverside and UCR Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, UC Davis and UC Davis Health, UCLA and UCLA Health, and UC Santa Barbara, potentially covering people across Northern, Southern and Central Valley areas of California. Although the software does not allow tracking of users, UC’s investigators for the study estimate that more than 20,000 users at the initial two campus locations have activated the software.

“Extending the pilot project allows us to reach a larger and more diverse pool of users to further evaluate the technology’s potential to help California slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Erica Pan, interim State Public Health Officer. “Fighting COVID-19 will continue to take all of us working together to find innovative and creative ways to keep our communities safe and healthy. Our appreciation goes out to the University of California students and employees who have opted in to test this new technology.”

About the technology

The Google/Apple technology employs Bluetooth to communicate with other Bluetooth-enabled devices nearby, such as the smartphones of people who at the same time are traveling on a plane, standing with in line at a grocery store or sharing space inside a classroom or residence hall. When a person opts into using the Google/Apple notification system, the user’s phone broadcasts a random ID number to other phones in the area. When phones come within 6 feet of each another, they log each other’s IDs — without names or locations attached.

If a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she can voluntarily enter a keycode indicating the positive test result. This approach will generate an anonymous alert to other users based on proximity and length of exposure.

“This new COVID-19 tracking app has the potential to greatly enhance our efforts to identify close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Mary Ferris, UC Santa Barbara’s COVID-19 clinical advisor. “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.

“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,” Ferris 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.”

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.

The importance of anonymity

“The most important thing to know about it is that is is completely anonymous,” explained Polito. “It neither gathers nor sends any personal information. The university doesn’t know if you have the app unless you choose to share that information.”

She noted that the app is not intended to replace traditional case management and contact tracing. It remains vital to the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 that volunteer users of the app at UC Santa Barbara continue to cooperate fully with Student Health, the campus’s COVID-19 Response Team and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

Noted Matt Hall, associate vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer at UC Santa Barbara, “Apple and Google provided an excellent technology that preserves privacy, preserves choice. It allows the UCSB community to participate in the public health battle against COVID-19 in a totally voluntary way in advance of the State of California’s general deployment. I hope each and every one of our community members can take advantage of this opportunity.”

To learn more about GAEN, visit the information pages from Google and Apple.

This article originally appeared in UC News, November 12, 2020.

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