Two University of California campuses are piloting the use of a smartphone technology to notify users if they have had a high-risk COVID-19 exposure that may result in infection. Importantly, privacy and security are central to the design of the technology, which does not collect location data from any device and never shares user identities.
The effort uses Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) technology on smartphones to supplement the essential work of human contact tracers and help further reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A major goal of this pilot is to determine if 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 limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The project is a partnership among UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and the California Department of Technology (CDT) to test the Exposure Notification Express mobile application recently released by Google and Apple. Nicole May, PMO director, UC San Diego Health said, “The successful launch of the exposure notification app was the product of the close partnership between technology and public health experts at UCSD, UCSF, the state, and Google and Apple. The team leaned into the challenge of launching the technology within just two weeks so that it would be available to UCSD students upon their return to onsite campus instruction.”
The limited pilot program at UCSD rolled out in a soft launch on September 21 and officially on September 24. UCSD employees and students who wish to participate may sign up via the California COVID Notify website for UCSD. UCSF plans to start using this technology on September 30 for UCSF students, faculty, and staff participating in onsite activities at select locations. Individuals interested in participating should review the UCSF COVID Notify website. These pilots will allow 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 each other.
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. State and university epidemiologists will review the results of the pilot to determine how to optimize the smartphone-based technology and whether it should be rolled out more broadly.
“If the pilot is successful, it will set the foundation for the state to offer voluntary exposure notifications to all Californians using this free smartphone-based technology,” said Christopher Longhurst, MD, chief information officer, UC San Diego Health. “The Google/Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) Express tools offer a high-tech, privacy-preserving solution that automates the work of notification for you — without sharing who you are or providing unnecessary digital details that could compromise privacy.”
“It’s likely that we will need multiple approaches to exposure notification in order to meet the preferences and needs of individual Californians. This is a promising avenue to explore to supplement traditional methods,” said Dr. Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health and an infectious disease expert. “Fortunately, UC has the capacity to work on multiple fronts in the fight against COVID-19.”
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 dormitory. When a person opts into using the Google/Apple notification system, the user’s phone broadcasts a random identification (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, they can voluntarily enter a keycode indicating they received a positive test result. This approach will generate an anonymous alert to other users based on proximity and length of exposure.
“By using Bluetooth technology, we can achieve notifications with strong privacy protections in place,” said Longhurst. “Your location information is never collected. User identities are not shared with anyone, including Apple and Google. And it is all voluntary, so users can opt out any time.”
Apple has made the technology available on the iOS 13.7 system update. Google implemented the system with an automatically generated application on Android 6.0 this month.
The pilot is supported by the UC San Diego Return to Learn initiative, UCSF and UCSF Health.