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Campus reentry update: University of Arizona begins testing phase for new contact tracing app


Photos from the June 18, 2020 Reentry Conference held by President Robbins. Topics such as the rising cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and the new Covid Watch application were discussed.

The University of Arizona Reentry Task Force held its sixth weekly briefing Thursday morning in a new location: Health Sciences Innovation building, Room 305. 

This move from the Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center comes after UA athletes officially returned to campus Monday to train for the fall.

On the panel were Dr. Richard Carmona, Dr. Joyce Schroeder, Dr. Daniel Derksen, Tanner Mihesuah and UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins.

New tracing app in development

The team discussed the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in Arizona and how it will play into the ultimate decision to reopen campus in the fall.

“If our ICUs, if our hospitals, if our medical systems are overwhelmed, we’re simply not going to be able to come back,” Robbins said.

RELATED: Campus reentry update: Reentry Task Force discusses importance of research

The discussion segued into the new contact tracing app, which began its first phase of testing today.

Schroeder, who heads the UA’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, said the department recently finalized collaboration plans with Covid Watch, who is developing an app for contact tracing and exposure notification.

“When dealing with infectious outbreaks, public health has a number of jobs to do to try and contain those outbreaks,” Schroeder said. “They include testing individuals to discover who has the infection and then tracing who those individuals have been in contact with and taking those groups of people and putting them in isolation, away from the rest of the community.”

The purpose of these measures is to get infected individuals out of circulation and ultimately limit the total spread of the virus. Schroeder compared contact tracing to containing the spread of a fire by having the ability to take sparks and put them out before they continue to spread.

“[The UA] has invested a lot of resources, the experts in public health are massively expanding our ability to do manual contact tracing,” Schroeder said. “So that is happening at the same time.”

Manual contact tracing involves someone calling an infected individual and figuring out who all they have been in contact with. Then they contact those individuals who were in proximity to the individual who tested positive one-by-one in a very tedious, but necessary, process. How about privacy?

The new app does not use any location tracking while also maintaining anonymity, so it won’t collect any data from the individual. Also, the notification for a positive test comes from an authorized health authority, thereby limiting who can enter in the data.

“It has to come from the state of Arizona Department of Health, which would send that information down through the counties who control that information and only then, would a key be given to that phone for that user to be able to put it in to say that you have a positive result,” Schroeder said. “It prevents any sort of malice being associated with the phone.”

RELATED: The Bighorn Fire progresses as people begin to evacuate their homes

Over the next month, the researchers will put the app through testing to make sure that it meets standards and can fulfill its requirements before being deployed. The Covid Watch app is also being made in an opt-in fashion, meaning that users are not required to download the app and even entering a positive result in the app is up to that individual.

“We really hope it’s going to be a game-changer,” Schroeder concluded.

Isolation measures for those who test positive

Task force Director Dr. Richard Carmona said they have set up an infirmary in Babcock Residence Hall with the capacity for about 200 students who either have tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who has tested positive.

Carmona said the task force has been working with Director of Facilities Management Chris Kobach to prevent contaminated air from circulating through the building by installing filters in the HVAC system. Additionally, Carmona said Campus Health will be involved to give students the proper care while they are isolated.

“Most of the care is, really, make sure they’re eating, make sure they’re not getting dehydrated, pain control, because there is no specific treatment for this disease,” Carmona said. 

Should someone need to isolate themselves in this infirmary, Carmona said they will still be able to attend school virtually.

“We have the best practices that we will bring forward to ensure that are students are treated well and safely during the time they’re here and they don’t miss their educational experience even if they are in the infirmary,” Carmona said.

Comments on flexibility for classes this fall

In every Reentry Task Force press conference thus far, Robbins has emphasized the flexibility the university will offer for both students and staff in attending or hosting classes. While he continued to express this, Robbins also said there are some things that simply cannot be done online.

“I don’t know how you can do a heart transplant if you’re a heart transplant surgeon without actually coming to the hospital and showing up and doing your job,” Robbins said. “There are going to be some things that you’re not going to be able to do without showing up in person.”

He also referenced challenges in completing performance-based classes and labs, saying students likely will not be able to get credit for those courses if they are not able to meet in the classroom. He did say a student could choose to defer the lab to later in their college career.

RELATED: Minority groups hit disproportionately harder, pandemic exposes racial disparities in healthcare

For faculty and staff, Robbins said the same is true. While efforts will be made to translate courses into a fully online structure for instructors unable to return to campus, Robbins said those classes with integral hands-on coursework cannot be sustained as completely online.

Robbins also said administration will continue to discourage people at high risk for complications due to COVID-19 from coming back to campus.

“We’ll try to put the safeguards for the most protective environment we can establish on the campus, but we can never de-risk this to zero, and I think everybody understands that,” Robbins said. “We want to be as flexible as we possible can but realizing there’s certain limitations to that flexibility.”

The status of CAJUA’s alternate furlough plan proposal

 RELATED: Coalition raises concerns with UA furloughs and layoffs

At their first press conference Thursday, June 11, the Coalition for Academic Justice at UArizona proposed a furlough plan as an alternative to the plan UA administration initiated in April. 

Robbins said while he himself has not looked at the proposal in detail yet, Chief Financial Officer Lisa Rulney and her Financial Sustainability Emergency Task Force are currently evaluating the plan.

To watch the full press conference, visit the UA’s YouTube channel.

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