(Photo via Isaac Mehegan/Unsplash)

The state of California has partnered with other western states to pilot a mobile app designed by Google and Apple that notifies a user when they have been exposed to someone infected with the novel coronavirus.

California and the other members of the Western States Pact — Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Oregon — plan to collaborate with universities to study the app's effectiveness among students, faculty and staff.

In California, the app will be made available at the University of California San Francisco and the University of California San Diego.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the app uses Bluetooth technology to notify users who are nearing someone who has tested positive for the virus.

The app is voluntarily activated by the user and does not reveal the identity or precise location of the coronavirus-positive user. The app also does not collect, store or transmit identifying user information, according to the CDPH.

“With the participation of the Western States Pact in this important endeavor, our public health officials and academic and technology partners can share experiences and lessons as they develop the Exposure Notification Express application,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Public health officials believe the app could enhance the capacity of local health departments to conduct contact tracing and monitor the coronavirus' spread in real time rather than with a multi-day lag due to an incubation period for the virus of up to 14 days.

UCSF is running a concurrent study entitled Covidseeker, which would use voluntarily submitted Google location data to track the virus' spread.

Google logs the longitude and latitude of smartphone owners with an Android device or Google Maps installed on their phone every two minutes, on average, according to UCSF.

People who donate that location data, which can locate a user within a radius of 6 feet, to UCSF could allow the university's researchers to monitor who coronavirus patients come into contact with and might expose.

“We don't just want people who are COVID-19 positive; we also want people who are negative, because we want to know what behaviors are protective,” said UCSF assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics Yulin Hswen.

“This will help policy makers adapt and fine-tune their public health strategies to be more responsive to what is actually happening,” she said.

Location data submitted to the Covidseeker study will be de-identified and shared only with public agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the study's funder, and the CDPH.

The exposure notification app pilot project is expected to launch later this month, according to California Department of Technology director Amy Tong.

“After reviewing the results of the pilot projects, the state will consider making the technology available to all people statewide, but consumers would still need to proactively opt-in to use the app,” she said.

The five Western States Pact members announced in April that they planned to work in concert to contain the virus' spread and safely reopen their economies.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis argued if the exposure notification app's pilot goes according to plan, it could be scaled up across the country to bring the pandemic to heel.

“We should use this tech to our advantage, and the more states and people that participate, the more we can detect and prevent potential hot spots and defeat the virus,” he said.

UC Health executive vice president Dr. Carrie Byington said that the state will likely need to approach exposure notification technology in multiple ways in addition to standard testing and contact tracing for the technology to be beneficial.

“This is a promising avenue to explore as a supplement to traditional methods,” she said. “Fortunately, UC has the capacity to work on multiple fronts in the fight against COVID-19.”

Eli covers public health, transportation and state politics for the Pagransen, serves as the main editor of the Public Health and COVID-19 Information Hub and assists with Pagransen' social media strategy. He has also previously covered local politics in San Diego County as well as college and professional sports across the Bay Area.