Adding to the state’s tools that could help stop the spread of COVID-19, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the California Department of Technology (CDT) announced a partnership with the University of California San Diego and University of California San Francisco to launch two pilot projects to test the Exposure Notification Express mobile application recently released by Google and Apple.
The app is designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 by confidentially notifying individuals who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus. Under the pilot projects, students, faculty and staff at the two universities will have an opportunity to use the app to help curb the transmission of COVID-19. Importantly, privacy and security are central to the design of the technology, which does not collect location data from any device and never shares user identities.
“The purpose of the pilot is for the state, along with local health entities and academic partners, to study the efficacy of the app to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Erica Pan, Interim State Public Health Officer. “Use of the app is voluntary and is designed to alert individuals of possible exposure if they have been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual. The app does not use any location services and is designed to be completely anonymous.”
The exposure notification app uses Bluetooth technology to notify individuals who have been in close proximity of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. When the app is voluntarily activated by users, Bluetooth detects when two mobile devices are in the same vicinity – without revealing a user’s identity or location. App users who test positive for the virus can anonymously share that information to benefit public health. The app does not collect, store or transmit any personally identifiable user information.
Individuals who receive an exposure notification via the app will be provided instructions for next steps which may include monitoring symptoms, self-isolation, getting tested, or contacting their public health department. Use of the app may allow those who were exposed to be alerted more quickly, as well as being able to alert strangers who may not be identified using traditional contact tracing methods.
“The pilots are expected to launch in the later part of September and last approximately one month,” said CDT Director Amy Tong. “After reviewing the results of the pilot projects, the state will consider making the technology available to all people statewide, but consumers would still need to proactively opt-in to use the app.”
“The opt-in pilot program will launch for students and employees on the campuses of UC San Diego and UC San Francisco. 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 Dr. Christopher Longhurst, Chief Information Officer, UC San Diego Health. “The Google Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) 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.”
Both campuses have the ability to test students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 and also have call centers and university employees to help launch the pilot projects with little to no assistance from their local public health departments.
“It’s likely that we will need multiple approaches to exposure notification in order to meet the preferences and needs of individual Californians. This is a promising avenue to explore as a supplement to traditional methods,” said Dr. Carrie L. Byington, executive vice president of University of California Health and an infectious disease expert. “Fortunately, UC has the capacity to work on multiple fronts in the fight against COVID-19.”