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UCSD To Roll Out Smartphone Pilot Program For COVID-19 Exposure Alerts


A contact tracing app is seen on a cell phone screen, Friday, May 22, 2020.

Photo by Stephen Groves / AP

Above: A contact tracing app is seen on a cell phone screen, Friday, May 22, 2020.

University of California Health announced Monday UC San Diego will be one of two campuses to pilot a smartphone technology that notifies users if they have had a high-risk COVID-19 exposure.

The limited pilot program will roll out incrementally at UCSD later this month. UC San Francisco will start using the technology a few weeks later for students, faculty and staff participating in onsite activities at select locations.

According to the university system, the technology does not collect location data from any device and will never share user identities.

“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, chief information officer for UC San Diego Health. “The Google/Apple Exposure Notification 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.”

The pilot programs 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.

The technology is intended to supplement the 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 the pilot is to determine if using smartphone technology can encourage users to respond to a high-risk exposure more quickly by self-isolating and receiving additional clinical resources.

To protect privacy, 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.

“It’s likely that we will need multiple approaches to exposure notification in order to meet the preferences and needs of individual Californians,” said Dr. Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health and an infectious disease expert. “This is a promising avenue to explore to supplement traditional methods. Fortunately, UC has the capacity to work on multiple fronts in the fight against COVID-19.”

The technology uses Bluetooth to communicate with other Bluetooth- enabled devices nearby. When a person opts into using 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 one 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.

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