The Alabama Department of Public Health and UAB, a part of the University of Alabama System, have provided an update on Alabama’s evolving campus entry program for higher education students as they return to campuses across the state.
Gov. Kay Ivey elected to use more than $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide testing, symptom monitoring and notification of exposure to COVID-19 for students in all public and private institutions in Alabama.
Highlighting the briefing was the official launch of GuideSafe, a multitool platform encompassing the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives, and comprising three key components: GuideSafe HealthCheck, GuideSafe Exposure Notification Application and GuideSafe Event Passport. Included under the GuideSafe platform are key spread-mitigation behaviors for ongoing mass adoption.
“Alabama’s priorities in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic are protecting the health and safety of its residents while safeguarding their privacy,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. “We appreciate this innovative partnership, which will harness technology to accelerate exposure notification and help slow the spread of COVID-19.”
“As students and educators make the transition back to our college campuses, it is critical that they have the tools to do so safely, and I am proud to provide the resources to help make that possible,” Ivey said. “Not only is this partnership enabling our colleges and universities to welcome back their students, it is also setting the tone and bar for the rest of the nation. Alabama is innovative and, during a health crisis, we are showing the country the great benefit of partnership, ingenuity and determination.”
“We are pleased to provide the GuideSafe platform to all public colleges and universities across our state,” said Finis St. John, UA System chancellor. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with Governor Ivey and her team to bring this project forward and help Alabama’s citizens during this unprecedented time.”
Exposure Notification App pilot launching
Key to the GuideSafe update was the announcement that the closed pilot phase of the platform’s anonymous Exposure Notification System (ENS) app officially launched Monday. College students across Alabama will be invited to participate, and any individual in Alabama with a .edu email address is encouraged to sign up to participate in the pilot phase.
The app – built by UAB and Birmingham-based MotionMobs in conjunction with ADPH and integrating Google and Apple’s ENS – is targeting up to 10,000 iPhone and 10,000 Android downloads. Once the pilot has ended later in August, the GuideSafe app will be assessed and made available for mass public download via iPhone and Android devices.
Alabama is one of the first states to launch Google’s and Apple’s joint exposure notification technology.
“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”
Participation with the GuideSafe app is voluntary and designed to protect privacy while anonymously alerting each user of potential exposure to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 14 days. The GuideSafe app enables users to make decisions best for them and loved ones, such as seeking medical advice or staying home. To preserve user privacy, ENS assigns random codes to each user, ensuring all parties remain anonymous to each other and to the system itself.
Additional GuideSafe platform abilities
Complementing the GuideSafe app capabilities are the GuideSafe platform’s HealthCheck and Event Passport components.
GuideSafe HealthCheck is a COVID-19 assessment tool that allows users to report related symptoms. Daily participation is encouraged, but compliance and enforcement are at the discretion of individual educational institutions. All higher education, as well as K-12, businesses and organizations, must opt in for students or employees to access and use this tool.
“The combination of these tools enables every participating college, university and K-12 school to engage faculty, students and staff regarding ongoing monitoring of symptoms, exposure and risks of acquiring COVID-19,” said Sue Feldman, professor and director of graduate programs in health informatics at UAB. Feldman leads the GuideSafe platform with Mohanraj Thirumalai, assistant professor of UAB health informatics.
GuideSafe Event Passport facilitates access to facilities, meetings and events with 10 or more participants. After completing HealthCheck, an algorithm renders an event passport for presentation at events. Green status means a person is approved to attend, while red means the person should not attend an event.
“The GuideSafe Event Passport is about showing up healthy or not showing up at all,” Feldman said.
Testing to continue for students across Alabama
While pilots have been conducted in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa since July 26, mandatory GuideSafe Entry Testing (formerly Stay Safe Together Testing) begins at 11 additional locations across Alabama on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Sites will open in Marion and Talladega on Aug. 10 and Aug. 14, respectively. Students will receive communication from [email protected] or [email protected] and be directed to a link to register for a testing location and appointment.
The largest-scale higher education testing initiative in the nation, GuideSafe provides a free, noninvasive, nasal swab-based procedure to ensure a negative test – or quarantining in the case of a positive result – before returning to campus. GuideSafe Entry Testing is required for every student attending a public or private four-year college in Alabama. Additionally, all two-year college students who live on campus are required to participate.
“Our ability to test every student returning to campus is essential in helping us maintain a safe environment,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, dean of the UAB School of Medicine. “Through this partnership with Governor Ivey and the State of Alabama, we have the ability to make testing available across the UA System and to all public and private colleges and universities statewide.”
Dr. George Netto, of UAB’s Department of Pathology, and his team will process every test performed on Alabama college students prior to their re-entry to their respective campus. Netto’s team adapted its lab procedures to a pooling test approach. This strategy will allow for ramping testing capacity by tenfold for the next 30 days as students return to campus.
“We devised a simpler way of collecting specimens, allowing students to do a nasal swab themselves, making it faster and easier than the nasopharyngeal swab, which requires a health care professional to administer,” Netto said. “Using nasal swabs and our in-house-developed pooling strategy will enable us to significantly ramp up capacity while maintaining full testing accuracy.”
The Birmingham-based Bruno Event Team is leading onsite logistics at all GuideSafe Entry Testing locations. All testing is secure and private through GuideSafe’s partnership with Verily and the company’s Healthy at Work screening and testing protocols – all designed with the privacy and security of personal health information at the forefront. Onsite testing results will be provided by GuideSafe partner and data repository PWN Health.
After entry testing is complete, GuideSafe will transition efforts to weekly random testing and outbreak/contact testing.
As college campuses and activities resume, ADPH and UAB, along with partner organizations, will update parents, students, staff and the public about the integration of GuideSafe and its multifaceted components in the collective fight against COVID-19.
For more information, please visit guidesafe.org.
This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.