Automatic exposure notification systems debut to help in COVID fight

Pilot programs using Apple and Google smartphone technology are put in place at UC San Diego and elsewhere to help in notifying individuals of COVID exposure.
By: | October 12, 2020
UC San Diego is piloting a automated exposure notification program. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San DiegoUC San Diego is piloting a automated exposure notification program. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

In an effort to more quickly notify individuals when a COVID-10 exposure may have occurred, UC San Diego and a handful of other institutions across the country are piloting the use of a Bluetooth technology-based system that automatically shares when a user had been close enough to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Called the Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) Express, the tool not only automates notification but does so without sharing who users are or providing unnecessary digital details that could compromise privacy, says Christopher Longhurst, MD, chief information officer for UC San Diego Health.

The tool is part of UC San Diego’s Return to Learn plan for reopening, and its use is voluntary. Users can decide themselves if they want to share a verified positive test result with the app and whether they want to share the information with other users.

“This system augments manual contact tracing; it is not a replacement,” Longhurst says. “Where traditional contact tracing is great for identifying household contacts, friends, etc., this approach can notify strangers from restaurants, bars, college parties, grocery stores.”

Bluetooth technology uses radio waves to communicate with other devices, such as the smartphones of people you are traveling with on a plane, standing in line in a store or sharing space inside a classroom or residence hall. When a person opts into using the Google Apple notification system, the user’s phone broadcasts a random identification number to other phones in the area. When phones come within 6 feet of each another, they log one another’s IDs — without names or locations attached.

When a person diagnosed with COVID-19 enters a keycode indicating they received a positive test result, an anonymous alert gets generated to other users who have opted-into the notification system.

Members of the UC San Diego campus received an email invitation to participate in the pilot with instructions for how to download (Google) or turn on (Apple) the app.

After UC San Diego, UC San Francisco will offer the system to students and employees who wish to opt in. It’s already in use at The University of Alabama, and UC San Diego officials have been in touch with administrators there.

“It’s likely that we will need multiple approaches to exposure notification in order to meet the preferences and needs of individual Californians,” said Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health and an infectious disease expert, in an announcement. “This is a promising avenue to explore to supplement traditional methods.”

“By some estimates, for every two users of the application there is one potential COVID-19 infection stopped,” adds Longhurst. “We are hopeful this will make a difference in tracking cases of COVID-19 so that all potential cases, especially those that may be asymptomatic, can get tested and isolate more quickly, helping to limit the pandemic.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.