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UC San Diego Using Virus Tracing App To Help Prevent Campus Outbreaks

A contact tracing app is seen on a cell phone screen, Friday, May 22, 2020.

Photo by Stephen Groves / AP

Above: A contact tracing app is seen on a cell phone screen, Friday, May 22, 2020.

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

BC, a student at UC San Diego, had only been back on campus a few days when she got an alert on her phone.

"A person you were recently near has reported they tested positive for COVID-19," it said. "Based on the strength and duration of the signals between the two phones, there is a good chance you were exposed to the virus."

The message came from the Google Apple Exposure Notification Express tool, a program UC San Diego students, faculty and staff can install on their phones to let them know if they've been near someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The tool uses Bluetooth technology on phones, not GPS data, to determine whether two phones have been in close proximity.

BC, who asked to be identified by her initials to protect her privacy, said she wasn't surprised by the news—her roommate had already told her a person they'd been hanging out with the night before had tested positive.

Still, she appreciated the clear instructions from the alert. She called the campus health center and was driven to a quarantine apartment, where she lived for 14 days. She never developed symptoms or tested positive for the virus, but she was still glad she received the alert.

"It took the pressure off me to do something, because it said, 'You're officially notified, here's what to do,'" she said.

UC San Diego is employing an ambitious reopening plan that so far seems to be paying off. Everyone on campus completes a daily health screening and is tested every 12 days. Since the start of its semester, the school has had 47 students test positive.

Meanwhile, at San Diego State University testing protocols were adopted later, after students arrived on campus. Since the start of its semester, the school has had 1,275 cases.

RELATED: Why Is San Diego Struggling To Keep Up With COVID Contact Tracing?

BC said she installed the tool because her school asked her to and she wasn't concerned about privacy.

"I'm not someone who worries about phone privacy and conspiracy theories, I didn't think about that at all, I just thought it would be a useful tool," she said.

That's the reaction university officials, and health officials across the state, were hoping for. The tool is being piloted at UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, with the eventual goal to expand to other UC campuses and eventually the entire state, said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer at UC San Diego.

"It's meant to be an augmentation to manual contact tracing, which works great for households and best friends," he said. "But contact tracing falls apart for people you don't know, for a stranger at a bar, restaurant, or college party."

The university is going to great lengths to protect users' privacy, to the point where it's hard for the school to know whether the program is having much impact.

RELATED: It’s Public Health Vs. Privacy As San Diego County Considers Contact Tracing App

"We don't know who has turned the app on, but we know who clicked on the website where you can download the app, and that's about 16,000 users," Longhurst said. "Any given day we have about 25,000 people on campus, so we can say more than 50 percent of people are using this."

The university doesn't know how many people have installed the program and doesn’t require students to use it. Also, if someone does decide to use the program they can uninstall it at any time.

Finally, people who test positive don’t have to report to the program. The only thing UC San Diego does know is that so far about 16 people have reported a positive case through the program.

Longhurst said despite the privacy protections, he thinks the program will help the university keep COVID-19 at bay.

"It's not a magic bullet, but it's one of many weapons in our fight against COVID on campus," he said.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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