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This Contact-Tracing App Is Key to DU’s Management of COVID-19

The app, created by Everbridge, has a 75 percent adoption rate in the community and was one component of the university's strategy to prevent outbreaks on campus.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and the state enacts more restrictions, Colorado universities are trying a number of ways to keep students and staff healthy, and ensure that in-person learning can continue in some capacity.

In addition to robust testing—both periodically and at will—socially distanced classes, and wastewater monitoring, the University of Denver (DU) has employed a mobile app created by Massachusetts-based critical event management solutions company Everbridge to assist with contact tracing, proximity monitoring, and wellness checks. Nearly 75 percent of students, faculty, and staff are using the app to help monitor and curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus, and so far, it’s been considered successful. Unlike other universities, DU hasn’t had a widespread outbreak on campus, according to Sarah Watamura, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology and the school’s COVID-19 response coordinator. 

As of November 18, only 146 students and employees had tested positive in the previous seven days, giving the campus a positivity rate of 5.56 percent during that time, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. “We are right now running at about 96 hours ahead of the city in terms of being able to identify and quarantine folks,” Watamura says.

Because of this, the university was able to offer in-person classes until November 16—when the university switched to remote learning after the state hit a record-high number of cases and hospitalizations—in addition to online, a hybrid of the two, and what they call “HyFlex,” where the same class is offered by the same professor in both ways and the student can decide how to participate.

Everbridge allows DU to automate the community’s contact-tracing and wellness checks, and makes the process faster and more accurate. The app sends twice-daily push notifications that remind students to complete symptom checks, and alerts the school of possible exposures or concerns on the self-reported questionnaires. The app works similarly to the statewide COVID-19 tracking service: Digital “tokens” or “keys” are exchanged via Bluetooth between phones that have the app installed. If a student, staff or faculty member is within six feet of someone who tests positive for at least 15 minutes, the school is notified. From there, representatives reach out to the individuals directly to provide support and resources, Watamura says. 

“We have worked with [Everbridge] in terms of how the data is returned to us. So for example, with the software that the state is using, the person could be notified when they’re exposed,” Watamura says. “In this case, we are notified of the exposure and do the outreach to our community, because often we’re already in communication with folks around the manual contact tracing, and that way you’re not just walking across the green and you get a text alert that you’ve been exposed and aren’t sure what to do about it.”

While the thought of an app that tracks your whereabouts might bring up privacy concerns, Claudia Dent, Everbridge’s senior vice president of product marketing, says the bluetooth tokens are randomized and don’t hold any personal information about you or your location. The app’s use of proximity tracking (instead of location services) is a big reason why it has a high adoption rate in the DU community, Watamura adds. “We don’t need to know where you are,” she says. “We need to know who you’re near.”

The threshold for the app to be effective is a 60 percent adoption rate, so both Dent and Watamura are pleased with their numbers. Dent says there’s likely a community element—wanting to protect yourself and your fellow students and staff—that contributes to the high adoption rate. But the biggest incentive is that it helped the university continue with in-person classes for longer and even allowed for some socially distant events on campus. For example, the app can be set up to require people invited to a certain event to complete a wellness check before they’re allowed to enter. “We are using the symptom monitor within the app to control campus access now—true for work, class, events and the like,” Watamura says. 

Looking forward to the holiday break, the app will assist with ensuring that students and staff return to campus safely. University policy currently requires those who have traveled out of state to quarantine for 10 days upon their return. After winter break, the school will require a documented 10-day quarantine, proof of a flu shot or flu shot exemption, and a negative COVID-19 test. The app will continue requiring students to submit wellness checks as they return to campus.

“We help people put the puzzle pieces together as much as possible,” Dent says. “If you understand that someone was away from campus for a week and they come back on Monday, and on Tuesday they self-report as positive, it may be likely that if they were away for a week, that that’s where they contracted it. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t spread it since they’ve been back on campus, but it can help you put some puzzle pieces together.”

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