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Tracing App Pilot at Alabama Universities to Be Made Public

A contact tracing app that was used to track the novel coronavirus across universities in the state is being made available to the general public. Officials say this app will work alongside the existing public health app.

by Melissa Brown, Montgomery Advertiser / August 18, 2020
Nurse Latasha Ivey closes a completed test at a coronavirus testing center on the Alabama State University campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. ASU is offering coronavirus testing to those in nearby neighborhoods. TNS

(TNS) — Developers of a smartphone app designed to contact trace coronavirus exposures are making the program available to the Alabama public after several weeks of pilot use in university populations around the state. 

The GuideSafe app was quickly developed over the summer with the help of federal pandemic relief funds at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UAB, along with a private Birmingham firm, developed the program with technology from Google and Apple. 

Dr. Karen Landers, district medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Monday the app is an "extremely powerful" tool in the ongoing fight against further COVID-19 spread. 

Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, developers said Monday. Though pre-entry testing has been required by a number of Alabama universities, the GuideSafe contact tracing portion has been voluntary and, in the general public, will also rely on voluntary disclosure after a person receives a positive test result. 

The GuideSafe app was developed in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Public Health, but developers said at a news conference Monday that the app will not replace ADPH's existing contact tracing efforts, which help pinpoint where COVID-19 cases may have originated from and inform people who might have possibly been exposed. 

On Monday, developers continually stressed that user privacy was a major priority when developing the app. The app doesn't track GPS location, said Dr. Curt Carver, UAB's chief information officer, instead using Bluetooth and randomly generated codes in a cellphone's operating system. 

Throughout the day, the app will exchange codes with other users via Bluetooth. When a user reports a positive test, which requires its own verification process, the app will match phone codes for the previous 14-day period to inform others, who were within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes, of possible exposure. 

"Data confidentiality and user privacy permeate every aspect of the app," Carver said. "The app never records location, identity or accesses your contact list."

Developers are encouraging everyone in Alabama to download the app, but UAB's Dr. Sue Feldman said use of the app within small groups is particularly important to begin creating a network. 

"We hope that when these small groups get together that everyone within those small groups will have downloaded the exposure notification app," Feldman said. "And before we know it, we will have a critical mass cross the state. But that critical mass must start with smaller groups. If you can imagine, everyone in a fraternity or sorority house should have it downloaded. If you were going to an event, say a conference, we would want everyone in that group to have it downloaded."

The GuideSafe app is rolling out to the general public as universities, colleges and some K-12 schools begin re-opening through the end of August and early September. After a steep spike of cases in mid-July, Gov. Kay Ivey implemented a statewide mask ordinance. The seven-day average of new cases has declined sharply in August and hospitalizations, which remained at record highs for several weeks, have also started to decline. 

Landers said Monday counties across the state have begun to see improvement, but the trends do not mean the coronavirus threat has passed. Prevention through social distancing and masking is still key, Landers said, until a vaccine or better treatments are available. 

"My concern is as we see some improvement, people will want to relax their standards," Landers said. "This is not the time to do that. We have to remain consistent, we have to remain vigilant."

©2020 the Montgomery Advertiser, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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