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UC San Diego Uses Tech to Slow COVID-19 Cases

On Sept. 11, California gave University of California San Diego and University of California San Francisco the green light to launch its cellphone-based COVID-19 notification system pilot test to help better control COVID-19 outbreaks.

The approval comes as San Diego State University experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases. Since the start of the fall semester, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 640 students.

The initiative is part of the university’s Return to Learn program, which will allow students and staff members to receive cellphone notifications on whether they’ve come in contact with someone who has COVID-19.

“This new technology is one of the many tools that the Return to Learn program will invite the university community to use on a voluntary basis to help detect and prevent the spread of the virus,” said Pradeep Khosla chancellor at UC San Diego. “For every person that activates and uses the app, the greater the possibility of quick detection.”

Exposure Notifications

The university program built upon Apple and Google’s exposure notification system, which uses Bluetooth technology to warn someone when they’ve come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The latest expansion of this system, called “exposure notifications express,” allows health agencies to put the technology to use without developing their own cellphone application.

Apple cellphone users who decide to participate will simply enable the exposure notifications system, while Android cellphone users will need to download an app that Google will automatically generate for participating health agencies.

All university students, staff and faculty will receive an email invitation to participate in the pilot with instructions for how to download the Google app or enable iPhone notifications.

Aiming For High Adoption Rate

University officials anticipate a significant number of Google and Apple phone users on the campuses will voluntarily join the anonymous notification system.

“We’re certainly hoping adoption will be significant,” said Christopher Longhurst, chief information officer at UC San Diego Health. “We’re targeting over 75% adoption, recent modeling shows that even low rates of adoption can help stop some infections. But the higher the rates of adoption, the more likely we can effectively end the outbreak.”

Using bluetooth technology, smartphones will now be able to continually broadcast a device-specific and random identification number to other smartphones in the area.

If another phone senses one of these IDs in the area, it uses Bluetooth’s signal strength to determine how close the two phones are. When phones come within 6 feet of one another, they log each others’ random IDs.

If someone later tests positive for the novel coronavirus, they’ll be given the option to enter a code confirming their diagnosis.

High-Touch Privacy

“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.”

The pilot is part of the university’s Return to Learn program, which relies in part on the regular testing of the UC San Diego community.

The plan also includes face-covering requirements, increased sanitation, wastewater testing and public health interventions that include case isolation, contact tracing and exposure notification.

If proven successful, it may prompt the state to offer similar exposure notifications across the state.

“This is not a replacement for contact tracing, it is more of a way to augment it. We’ve been good at limiting the spread in our household, but it’s impossible to know how to contact strangers who might have been near you for 30 minutes,” said Longhurst. “This is really an opportunity to leverage technology to help in a way that we’ve never done before.”

UC San Diego is planning on having 12% of its classes offered in-person or a hybrid format. Approximately 7,500 students will move to its campus, staggered over ten days from Sept. 19 to Sept. 28. n

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