• By CJ Urquico

Going back to normal - there’s an app for that!

Guam launches Covid-19 contact tracing using Google and Apple’s platform

(Updated)

The public and private sectors on Guam have partnered to develop the Guam Covid Alert App, which is officially launched today, Thursday, Sept. 10.

The Centers for Disease Control, Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services (DPHSS), Galaide Group, UoG, and Infinity Web, along with the Office of Technology (OTECH) collaborated on this project. They reached out to tech titans, Apple, and Google to use their jointly developed Exposure Notification System. Six states have adopted the same system.

“Ninety-nine percent of all mobiles run OS run Google or Apple. The app allows for unique identifiers that are near each other. It works via Bluetooth only.” said Frank Lujan, chief technology officer at OTECH.

In a Zoom presentation made on Sept. 4, project stakeholders introduced the features of the app. The application uses smartphones built-in Bluetooth technology to allow phones with dynamically generated unique identifying numbers.

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Through Bluetooth connectivity, the app user checks if they got exposed to someone who reports to DPHSS or has tested positive for Covid. It does so anonymously and without tracking your location. App user privacy is 100 percent protected.

“It’s just basic math,” said Vincent Munoz, managing member of Next Generation, LLC. “It’s important that we have a strong outreach plan and high app adoption rates.”

“The only way we can win and go back to normal is to contain the virus,” said Monica Guzman, CEO and managing director of the Galaide Group.

Guzman leads the creation and distribution of outreach materials. Businesses are encouraged to put up posters and ask their employees to download and use the app. Social media resources will be available to help with the information campaign.

The app is useful for anonymous contact tracing, where the smartphone user does not know other people in the location—for example, a bus, or in line at the post office. Smartphones will act as beacons, quietly signaling each other as people get within six feet. The app records each encounter and will show the date, time, and duration of the exposure. When a user comes within six feet of a person who tests positive and reports afterward, app users get a notification. They will be advised to self-isolate and may call DPHSS to schedule a test.

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The app was deployed on Tuesday, Sept. 8, as part of the iOS 13.7 update, or download via the App Store on iPhones. You simply open the app and opt-in. You can turn it on and off. The application does not have to be open for the Covid Alert App to function. By using Bluetooth, the app will not use your data plan.

For Android devices, download the app for free at the Google Play store.

“It’s really important that we get the community’s support,” said Janela Carrera, DPHSS public information officer. “The more people that download this app, the better chance we have in containing the spread.”

“I want to emphasize how historic this is that we are launching this app at the right time. When the outbreak accelerates, it can be very hard to get a hold of it. This is a great armament for Guam to use to be safe and to open again.” said W. Thane Hancock, epidemiologist from the CDC.

At a press conference on Sept. 10, DPHSS, in partnership with the Office of the Governor and Office of Technology, unveiled the Guam Covid Alert app.

Guam is the first U.S. territory to launch an exposure notification app developed by engineers with Apple, Google, and the PathCheck Foundation that uses Bluetooth technology for digital contact tracing.

“Our island, much like the rest of the globe, is at war with an invisible enemy. But we don’t have to fight empty handed. While we know the effectiveness of contact tracing, when done manually it can be a time consuming process for our Public Health officials,” said Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero. “The Guam Covid Alert app digitizes contact tracing efforts and empowers each of us to stop the spread of the virus and save lives.”

“In addition to wearing our face masks, social distancing, and practicing good hygiene, streamlining our processes through technology will ensure we get to recovery sooner, rather than later,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio. “Without compromising our privacy, the Guam Covid Alert app helps us help Public Health in contact tracing investigations.”

This app proactively alerts an individual of an exposure notification, allowing the recipient to be informed and take the necessary steps to self-quarantine, seek medical attention and reduce potential exposure to others over the next 14 days.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a unique randomized code from a DPHSS official which can be entered by the user into the Guam COVID Alert app to verify the positive report. Other app users who may have been in close contact to an individual who reported a positive diagnosis will then get alerted to an exposure notification through the app.

By having a better understanding of who is potentially infected and laying low over the next several weeks, Guam can reduce the rate of transmission between individuals and stop the spread of Covid-19. Digital contact tracing is meant to augment manual contact tracing.

“Our team at DPHSS, along with countless healthcare professionals, have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are excited about what the Guam COVID Alert app can do to help our team of contact tracers and investigators at Public Health contain the spread and reduce the numbers on our island,” said Art San Agustin, Acting Director of DPHSS. “This is a fight we must all join together and I want to encourage everyone to be a part of the COVID fight by downloading this app.”

“It’s an incredible privilege to be working with Guam and many other jurisdictions in the US and worldwide pioneering technology to fight the pandemic,” said Ramesh Raskar, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of PathCheck Foundation. “We’re a mission driven organization focused on providing customizable technology to help public health authorities implement solutions to complement their other tools to contain the pandemic.”

Visit the Guam Covid Alert App at https://guamcovidalert.guam.gov/ to download the app and learn more.

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