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COVID-19 Tracking App Key to University of Alabama Opening

Technology that can track whether students, and even college football fans, are feeling symptoms of COVID-19 could be a major part of the plan to reopen Alabama college campuses and stadiums this fall.

by Dennis Pillion, Alabama Media Group / June 4, 2020
The University of Alabama is suspending travel to China over concerns about the coronavirus. TNS

(TNS) — Technology that can track whether students, and even college football fans, are feeling symptoms of COVID-19 could be a major part of the plan to reopen Alabama college campuses and stadiums this fall.

Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine and chair of a University of Alabama system-wide task force on re-entry, said the system is developing re-entry plans for all three campuses – Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville.

Part of those plans would require all students and employees to use an online symptom tracker to report whether they are feeling symptoms of COVID-19, and encourage them to use a free contact tracing app being developed with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The plans, called Stay Safe Together, are still under development, and would still have to be approved and implemented at each campus. Vickers said the UA Board of Trustees has been very supportive of the plans and he believes they will recommend adoption of the plans at UA, UAB and UAH.

“We want to be careful that we don’t speak directly for our sister institutions in our system, but we do believe there has been broad endorsement from our leadership and support from our Board,” he said. “So we believe that they’ll have a great opportunity to use it.”

Those plans could get the students back to campus. But athletic events or other large gatherings would be another story.

Sue Feldman, a UAB associate professor of health informatics who is overseeing the technology aspects of the re-entry plan, said in addition to working on the contact tracing app, her group is working on ways to use technology to reduce the risk of large gatherings of people.

“We are also developing a meeting and event assessment tool that will be for sporting events or theater events, or things like that,” Feldman said. “That is in the early development stages right now, so that's pretty much all that I can say about it, but it's in development.”

Feldman said that while it’s early in the process, attending a college sporting event in the future might be more like an airline flight, where people are required to check-in ahead of time and report that they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We've become accustomed to getting our plane ticket 24 hours before takeoff,” Feldman said. “You might get your event ticket 48 hours before, or 72 hours before the event. And with [showing] no symptoms.”

How it works

Under the current plan, all employees and students would be required to log into the symptom tracker, called Healthcheck, every day to report whether they were feeling any of the common symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, UAB launched a public version of a COVID-19 symptom tracker, a short questionnaire about whether a person was experiencing fever, coughing, loss of taste or smell or other possible symptoms of the coronavirus. Feldman said the school is developing a similar version for university employees and students.

The employees and students would be prompted to check in daily and report their symptoms. If an employee does not check in for three days, their supervisor would be notified. Student enforcement and compliance would be handled through the student health center.

Students and employees would also be required to complete an online course on the basics of safety and hygiene to stay safe from the virus before returning to campus.

“Some of the things that they talk about are keeping safe during COVID times, washing your hands and wearing a mask and staying six feet from people, things that we all know, but we need to be reminded of,” Feldman said. “So you go through that learning module and then at the end of the learning module, you do the symptom and exposure tracker which we’re calling Healthcheck.”

Then, students and employees will be urged, but not required, to download and turn on a contact tracing app, which will use Bluetooth signals to alert users if one of their close contacts later reports testing positive for the virus.

That app, which will be released to the public in the coming weeks, records encrypted identification numbers from other phones via Bluetooth signals when the phones are less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes. The app does not access GPS location or other data from the users’ phone, developers said. Later, if a person reports in the app that they have tested positive for COVID, the app sends an alert to the phones that were logged as being in close contact with the person who tested positive.

Vickers said the combination of those two systems will help alert university officials to potential outbreaks of the virus as students return to the campuses.

“We believe this is our best tool, maybe one of the best in the country, that would allow us as an organization to have engagement of our faculty, students, and staff in an ongoing fashion regarding their symptoms and their exposure and risk of developing COVID-19,” Vickers said.

Vickers said with those plans in place, along with precautions like masking and social distancing, universities could potentially reopen for the fall semester.

“I don't think there's a set reopen date,” Vickers said. “I think some of the campuses across the state are looking for some smaller summer sessions. But obviously sometime in late August or September I would think [classes could resume]. And I think our medical plan has at least a focus that there will still be social distancing and masks being a part of that reentry platform until we have different biology data around the virus.”

A model for other universities?

While the plans are being developed with the three UA System campuses in mind, both Vickers and Feldman said the plans could be used by other universities or other large employers in Alabama and beyond.

“In terms of other universities, I believe that we are among the leaders in this,” Feldman said. “There have been several meetings and things in the press that have led me to believe that we are amongst, probably the top five in the nation.

“Other universities may have very well thought out plans but they don’t know how to execute them and they don’t have the tools that that they would need to execute those plans. We have not only thought of it, but we have the tools to do it and so what we’re able to provide is pretty much a turnkey solution for universities and organizations to be able to bring people back on campuses or into offices.”

Vickers said the system has been in contact with other schools about sharing the program, although nothing has been finalized yet.

“There are multiple places that are interested, other schools, but we haven't officially rolled it out to them and they haven't officially said they're going to do it, except expressed significant enthusiasm,” Vickers said.

The program will require significant buy-in from the community to make the symptom tracking and Vickers said that traditional campus leadership groups would play a big role.

“It’s going to be a cultural sea change to get people to understand its value,” Vickers said. “On big college campuses, like a UA, or if Auburn decides to do it, it really is going to be driven by getting the student government, the faculty senate, the dorm leaders, the housing representatives, the student enrollment leaders, all buying in and creating the cultural backdrop to say ‘this is something we must do.’"

©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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