Alabama Students Utilize Testing and Screening Tools to Help Track COVID-19

Alabama has launched one of the largest comprehensive initiatives in the nation, experts say, to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in colleges and schools across the state.

The initiative, broadly known as GuideSafe tools, uses a combination of testing, apps and web-based self-screening tools, and is now being used in all Alabama public universities and nearly all private universities in the state. More than a dozen public school districts in Alabama have expressed interest in using it. “Even though its design is for college populations, there is certainly a place for GuideSafe in high schools,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey says.

[READ: Colleges Attempt to Beat Back Wave of Coronavirus Infections]

More than 44,000 people statewide are using a new GuideSafe app, which was rolled out to the general public in mid-August and is available for free download, says Sue Feldman, professor and director of graduate programs in health informatics at University of Alabama–Birmingham. About 200,000 people are using at least one GuideSafe tool daily, she says.

While states and universities across the nation may be using similar programs, Feldman, who is GuideSafe’s principal investigator, says she isn’t aware of any other state that has implemented a comprehensive plan like Alabama’s. The hope is that using the GuideSafe tools, along with other mitigation efforts such as wearing masks and social distancing, could decrease the spread of COVID-19 by as much as 80%, Feldman explains.

“All of these things alone may not mitigate the spread, but if we put them together, now we can have a bigger impact,” Feldman says. However, for the initiative to work to its fullest capability, these tools must be widely used, experts say. The more people who follow through with using GuideSafe, including logging into the web-based HealthCheck tool, complying with COVID testing, and downloading and using the exposure notification app, the more effective it will be.

The Alabama Department of Public Health believes the GuideSafe Tools and app have already proven to be useful, especially in colleges and universities, but these tools may also have a broader impact with the general public, says Dr. Karen Landers, department spokeswoman.

However, between Aug. 19 — the first day of on-campus classes at the University of Alabama — and Aug. 30, there have been 1,368 reported COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff, Forbes reported.

“While hospital ICU utilization is gradually declining, all measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, washing your hands, and the using cloth face coverings are necessary to reduce the spread of this virus,” Landers says.

This is how GuideSafe works:

· Most students entering college or university in Alabama were required to have a COVID-19 test before entering school began. (Most Alabama universities began in the last two weeks.) Now that school is in session, the program will begin doing random testing, known as “sentinel testing,” which is meant to catch emerging COVID-19 hotspots and keeping track of trends in cases. Between 2.5% to 3% of a campus population will be tested weekly, says Bob Phillips, executive director of the GuideSafe testing program.

· University students and staff self-screen their symptoms daily using the HealthCheck platform, a web-based assessment tool. Students and staff answer questions to assess any symptoms or exposure to COVID-19. Based on the responses, the assessment will grant the person an “Event Passport,” letting the person know whether they are clear to enter a classroom, library or another large gathering.

· The GuideSafe Exposure App works independently from the HealthCheck platform. It allows users to be anonymously notified of potential exposure to COVID-19. The app uses anonymous codes that are exchanged between smart cellphones that have downloaded the app.

The testing and the HealthCheck components are intended to work together to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the school setting. Statewide, more than 75,000 college students were tested for COVID before school began, Phillips says. “We believe testing is an important tool, because the more widely and frequently we test, the more on top of this we’ll be,” he says.

[READ: Young People Complicate COVID Contact Tracing]

In universities across the state, there is a 93% compliance rate with using the daily HealthCheck platform. In the UAB system — including the UAB Hospital and medical school — completing the daily self-screener survey is required, although the system works on the honor code, Feldman explains.

The GuideSafe Exposure Notification App was developed in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Health and is meant to complement contact tracing efforts. However, the app doesn’t track a person’s movements or who that person has been with; it only notifies people of possible exposures. It has been downloaded more than 44,000 times statewide, Feldman says. As of Aug. 30, she says, the app has released notifications of 46 positive verifications of COVID-19 exposures among its users.

After the app is downloaded onto an Apple or Android smartphone, it runs continuously in the background in a low-energy mode. It works by exchanging anonymous codes with other phones that also have the app. The phones must be within 6 feet of each other for at least 15 minutes. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, that person can report it on the app, and once that test is verified, those who have been in close contact with that person within the last 14 days will be alerted. The person’s identity and location aren’t disclosed.

“I have it downloaded on my phone, and I check it when I get up in the morning to see if I have any notifications,” Feldman says. “But for the most part, you don’t need to pay too much attention to it. That’s the best part of it — it will pay attention for you.”

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