University of California students and staff are working to contain the coronavirus pandemic with their smartphones.

The California Department of Public Health, Department of Technology and UC are pilot-testing technology that uses smartphones to identify and notify users of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. UC Riverside and UCLA are among the campuses in the trial.

“When someone tests positive, it allows your phone to notify, anonymously, all of those people who have been in prolonged contact with you,” said Dr. Andres Gonzalez, the chief medical officer at UC Riverside. “It will urge them to get tested, to seek medical attention or quarantine.”

California COVID Notify uses Google Apple Exposure Notification technology.

Smartphones with the technology activated identify themselves to each other in the background without draining battery or data. Several times a day, the phone downloads a list of which phones belong to someone who’s tested positive. If two phones have been in proximity to one another, an algorithm designed by epidemiologists evaluates how high the risk of infection is, based on the duration, date and proximity. Users at risk for infection will be contacted. After 14 days, the data is automatically deleted off the phones.

Other countries, which have had greater success in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, including Singapore and Taiwan, have been using similar technology for much of the pandemic.

The test initially began in September at UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, but rolled out Monday, Nov. 16, to five more campuses: UCLA, UCR, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara.

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The smartphone technology is meant to complement existing contact tracing, according to Michael Beck, UCLA’s administrative vice chancellor, by speeding up the notification process, allowing those exposed to quarantine and make testing arrangements faster.

“In the initial pilot phase involving UCSD and UCSF, there have been instances where exposure notifications alerted individuals – who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 – before contact tracers would have identified them,” Beck, wrote in an email.

Users opt in to the test using anonymous keys generated by their smartphones. The technology doesn’t use information that could identify a given person or their location. The Google Apple Exposure Notification was chosen for the campuses because of its privacy protections.

The pilot will look at things such as how many students and employees will activate the technology, how many will keep it on, and how positivity rates at campuses where California COVID Notify is available compare to those where it’s not.

“The more people that have the app or have the feature turned on, the better you are in tracing,” Gonzalez said.

For Android phone users, California COVID Notify is available as an app through Google Play. iPhone users just have to go into their settings, and turn on Exposure Notification and Bluetooth. Since this is a pilot test, the general public cannot currently opt in.

“I would anticipate, if it’s proven successful, that we’d want to extend that to the rest of the state,” Gonzalez said.


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