University’s Contact Tracing Efforts Strengthened by Smartphone App

Everbridge, with strong privacy and security features, helps identify possible exposures to COVID-19

Everbridge, a secure and private smartphone app, allows students, faculty and staff to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19. Once that self-reporting has occurred, the app can help identify exposure to other individuals in the campus community. Adobe Stock photo

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi faculty, staff and students are encouraged to download Everbridge, a secure smartphone app that allows individuals to self-report their positive COVID-19 status and helps university contact tracers notify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus.

A team of university officials have been working with the Everbridge contact tracing app to help identify ways to trace potential cases of COVID-19. The team decided to recommend the app to make the necessary job of tracking the virus’ spread after they determined it was both the easiest to use and also secure and private for users.

Once downloaded, the secure and private smartphone app will provide students, faculty and staff an opportunity to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19. Once that self-reporting has occurred, the app can help identify exposure to other individuals in the campus community.

Contact information of mobile app users is never exchanged or shared with other app users, and Bluetooth will not be used to track users’ location or movements, university officials said.

The Everbridge app is also designed for use with workplace and campus environments, said Nishanth Rodrigues, UM chief information officer and chief information security officer, who was on the team that chose the app. 

“Smartphones are devices that we usually have on our person, and they offer a quick and easy method to keep us, and those around us, safe and informed,” Rodrigues said. 

The Everbridge app walks users through the process of monitoring and reporting their exposure to COVID-19.

The university’s “Campus Ready” plan calls for any student, faculty or staff member who develops symptoms of COVID-19 or has been exposed to someone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 to notify University Health Services immediately. University Health Services will provide testing and ask anyone who has been tested to isolate until they receive their results.

Bluetooth technology is a major component of digital contact tracing efforts. Once Bluetooth is turned on in the Everbridge mobile app, a user’s device will continually transmit and collect anonymous “keys” from other devices that have the app installed.

This Bluetooth key exchange will help determine if users have been in proximity to a user who has reported a positive test.

The app also allows users to report their own positive status, and Everbridge will determine if other users are near the infected user. Users who are at risk based on their proximity to an infected user will be notified. It relies on an anonymous “key” exchange, made possible through Bluetooth. When students, faculty and staff utilize the self-reporting feature, the app will determine if other users were in proximity to the user with a positive case.

Users can identify a specific contact or a list of contacts who have been at all the locations visited by that contact over a period of time and notify them.

The Everbridge app can be downloaded for free in Apple and Android app stores or by clicking here.

Safety, security and privacy for users were important factors when choosing an app. Not only does it help trace contacts, Everbridge also serves as the university’s “one-stop” repository for all of the COVID-19 related information it publishes.

“The app is configured to operate with the minimum necessary permissions to deliver the needed information,” Rodrigues said. “Location of users isn’t tracked; however, this permission is required to allow the Bluetooth communication between phones to exchange private keys.”

It works privately to notify those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. 

“The purpose of the private key exchange, which will remain confidential on an individual’s smartphone, is so that in the event one of the close contacts – staying within 6 feet for a minimum of 15 minutes – reports testing positive, a notification can go out to those who may have been in proximity to them,” Rodrigues said.

Peter Grandjean

Peter W. Grandjean, dean of the School of Applied Sciences, worked with Rodrigues and Alex Langhart, director of UM Health Services, to find the best option for contact tracing. The School of Applied Science also has a team of volunteers helping with contract tracing efforts.

“The app will help our contact tracers to identify and serve those who may have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19,” Grandjean said.

Langhart called the app another very important tool for Ole Miss as students return to campus. 

“It gives our contact tracing team a head start in their investigation so we can quickly identify and quarantine those exposed,” he said. “The extensive protocols and procedures we’ve put in place are intended to help minimize the spread of the virus, but they only work if our community adheres to them.

“It is incumbent on each and every one of us to take on shared responsibilities for the health and well-being of our campus community.”