Colleges across the country are testing contact-tracing apps, hoping that tech-savvy students already accustomed to sharing so much of their life online will embrace the digital tool as densely populated campuses try to reopen.
The tracing apps, announced with much fanfare early in the coronavirus pandemic, haven’t yet been in widespread use because of bureaucratic hurdles, early tech hiccups and public apprehension about privacy risks. But the contained environment of college campuses may be the ideal testing ground to boost lagging digital efforts to trace infections, say state officials and public health experts behind this push.
“It’s clear across the entire United States that this is probably going to have to happen at the university level,” said Joyce Schroeder, a University of Arizona professor who is leading on-campus deployment of Covid Watch, an app leveraging tracing technology jointly developed by Apple and Google.
Digital contact tracing tools alone won’t be enough to broadly help colleges reopen campuses right away. But as students flood dorms and dining halls from Virginia to Arizona, colleges pushing through with reopening hope these apps can keep cases down, even if students are more likely to be lax about precautions like social distancing, masks and hand washing.
Unlike states who can only ask nicely that their residents use these apps, colleges may be able to require students to download them. If deployed broadly enough, the experience of college campuses with tracing apps could provide lessons about how the unproven technology could work with the broader population. It remains to be seen, however, how many campuses will stay open after schools like Notre Dame halted in-person instruction and Michigan State joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in abruptly moving classes online as coronavirus clusters emerged.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines on how states could use these apps, the Trump administration hasn’t offered a coordinated strategy for contact tracing. States have been slow to roll out the widely touted tracing technology from Apple and Google, which uses Bluetooth signals to ping users if they’ve come into proximity with an infected person. However, those apps are now starting to come online, months after the tech giants made their technology available to states in May.
Before a broader launch of Virginia’s contact tracing app earlier this month, the state asked a few hundred students and staff to test it out across campuses, and it is now encouraging all higher education institutions to offer the app. The University of Alabama debuted its own app last week in partnership with the state’s health department.
More are coming. The University of Arizona is piloting an app which it aims to share with the state health department by the fall. And North Dakota, one of the first states to build its own contact tracing app this spring, launched a system based on Apple and Google’s technology last week timed for students’ return to campus.
State officials said college campuses were a natural place to launch the technology. Given the volume of possible exposures on campuses, apps will “probably be more effective than the more traditional way of tracing,” said Vern Dosch, who’s heading up North Dakota’s contact tracing effort. Jeff Stover, who oversees Virginia’s contact tracing app, said students are highly motivated “to take actions to help ensure their campus communities remain safe and open.”
The apps, which can automatically notify students who may have been exposed to the virus and nudge them to get tested, will be “very important” for containment, said Dosch. The goal is to supplement the manual contact tracing process, which relies on people who test positive for the virus to remember where they’ve been and who may have been exposed.
Still, college campuses present their own unique challenges that could render digital tracking ineffective. Their communal setting can be especially challenging place to track disease spread. A contact tracer typically must track down three or four contacts per infected person — a number that could be 10 times higher on a crowded college campus, Dosch said.
“[Students] have more of a tendency to be in the student union, be out at night,” Dosch said. “We’re adding contact tracers very quickly, but we’re concerned.”
The pandemic is also exacerbating health care problems that universities struggle to manage under normal circumstances, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Student health centers are often underfunded and understaffed, resulting in improper diagnoses and long wait times.
“Most colleges and universities are not prepared for a surge in health care issues,” said Pasquerella.
Underage drinking and drug use at parties could make students more reluctant to report their contacts. Already, major outbreaks this summer have been linked to fraternities, even before most students return to campus.
An effective contact tracing program also relies on robust access to testing, as well as plans for isolating infected patients and those exposed to the virus. Researchers have suggested testing every two days for safest reopening, though CDC guidance from June says re-entry testing hasn’t been “systematically studied.” Without a coordinated strategy for testing and isolating contacts, policies differ across campuses.
Even as some campuses require students to download the tracing apps, some privacy lawyers warned it’s not clear if there are limits on how schools can use data they generate. Kirk Nahra of the law firm Wilmer Hale said schools should explain and set enforceable guidelines so students trust that schools aren’t misusing their data or exposing potentially sensitive information about their movements off campus.
At Rice University in Houston, which plans to welcome back about 3,000 undergraduates this fall, students will be required to download a contact tracing app from emergency notification company Everbridge. Similar to the Apple-Google tracing technology, the Everbridge app uses a Bluetooth signal to track proximity to other app users, but it also allows people to manually enter symptom data that could be helpful to contact tracers.
Rice’s app requirement extends to all returning students, even if they don’t live in campus housing, said Klara Jelinkova, vice president for international operations and IT. However, a school spokesperson said there does not appear to be a penalty for students who do not download the app.
Even with a mandate to use these apps, there’s no guarantee that students will comply, university officials said.
“Short of checking somebody’s phone to see if it’s on there, there’s no way to see if somebody’s downloaded the app,” said Schroeder of the University of Arizona.