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UArizona is launching a new mobile app that lets students know anonymously if they have been exposed to COVID-19

About 5,000 students are expected to return to campus in Tucson next week.

PHOENIX — If you could get an anonymous alert on your phone letting you know if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 would you sign up?

That's what the University of Arizona and Covid Watch is promising students as they return to campus beginning Aug. 24. 

The university has partnered with the nonprofit organization Covid Watch, which was co-founded by a school alumna, to lead efforts to customize the exposure notification app and ready it for use on campus and hopefully across the state.

The new technology is unlike contact tracing because it's completely anonymous and can identify potential clusters of the virus based on where the app is being used.

“I’m definitely excited to be back but I’m also nervous. I hope all the efforts work because I don’t want to be fully online again,” said rising junior Anakaren Romero. 

She is one of the students returning to campus and likes that the mobile app allows for people to notify others discreetly.

The app creators promise students who download it will have all of their personal information kept secure.

"While other apps provide personal data like location or contact information to central authorities, such as a state or an institution, Covid Watch is one of the first fully anonymous exposure alert apps deployed in the United States, and the only one able to integrate all available information about an exposure to produce the most accurate possible assessment of risk." 

“How many people are going to actually use the app, what’s the uptick gonna be? That’s critical here,” says family physician and Wildcat alum Dr. Natasha Bhuyan.  

Bhuyan says Covid Watch is a step in the right direction but the next steps are what’s important: “Do they have access to testing and do they have a way to reasonably quarantine?"

For Wildcats, that answer is yes. The university is offering testing to any students or staff members with concerns of exposure.  

They’ve even set aside three dorms on campus for students who’ve tested positive.

Arizona is the first state with permission to use a joint Google/Apple application that allows for interaction between Android and iOS devices for public health purposes. 

"The app is a vital part of our plan to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 as we return to campus over the coming weeks with our on-ramp approach,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am very proud of our partnership with Covid Watch, which allows us to prioritize privacy while using this incredible technology for exposure alerts. I hope our entire campus community takes advantage of this resource. The more people who use it, the safer we will be."

While the app seems great, Anaken Romero says ultimately, it’s up to students to keep each other safe. 

“I hope everyone does their own part and we can keep the school open so it doesn’t close like others have had to.”  

On Aug. 24, select courses like research labs, medical courses and performing arts will be held in person. The following week, in-person and flex in-person classes of up to 30 students will begin with an estimated 14,000 people on campus. 

Following the Labor Day holiday, university officials hope 50% of all courses will have some in-person component. They hope to have between 25,000 and 30,000 on campus by that time.