UA testing app to trace COVID-19 cases on campus

UA testing app to trace COVID-19 cases on campus
(Source: WTVM)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - An app on a cellphone could play a big role in tracking the coronavirus to keep the campus community safe at the University of Arizona come Fall.

During a briefing Wednesday, members of the campus Reentry Task Force talked about the ‘Test, Trace and Treat’ strategy to bring students, faculty and staff back to campus in the fall semester.

“Contact tracing must be comprehensive and timely,” said Kacey Ernst, associate professor and program director of epidemiology at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. “It’s particularly important in a campus setting where individuals are in close social networks that could facilitate rapid transmission.”

Ernst said multiple strategies for contact tracing on campus are planned, including traditional methods and new technology the team will be testing over the summer.

A team at UArizona is working working with a developer, COVID Watch, on the mobile app that uses bluetooth signals to track interaction or locations between users, anonymously.

“This is brand new and it’s really exciting, but it’s also worrying a lot of people," said Joyce Schroeder, PhD. Schroeder is the department head and professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona.

“What it is, is an app that adds onto your phone that you have to add yourself, nobody is going to make you add it. You have to activate it, nobody is going to make you activate it and if you get a positive test, you have to put it in. Nobody is going to do that to you," said Schroeder.

The developer explains the app as “a way to alert you if you might have been exposed to the coronavirus without collecting any identifying information. We use private, local bluetooth signals to help you take action." Schroeder emphasized the app is voluntary and no personal data is shared.

If there is a positive case, the user can self-report his or her diagnosis. The app will then send out an ‘exposure alert’ to all users who were in close proximity of the infected person, in the last two to four weeks. Guidance on the next steps the user should take will also be given.

Schroeder said the new technology would help the university scale up on tracing the virus.

“Instead of a person calling a person calling a person, phones can contact as many phones as they were contact with," said Schroeder. "And, so it allows up to scale this up to a degree that we can bring 60,000 people back on campus and find out, were you in proximity with a person who tested positive in a way that allows you to isolate and keep our campus more safe.”

“The more people who use this technology, the safer the campus community will be,” said Schroeder.

The campus Reentry Task Force said they hope to make a final decision on safety measures and whether or not in-person classes can continue by at least a month before school is scheduled to begin.

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