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SF officials urge use of contact-tracing app

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

On the surface, the city of Santa Fe and the United World College in Montezuma just outside Las Vegas, N.M., have little in common.

But both have found the same contact-tracing app out of Carnegie Mellon University that aims to make tracking COVID carriers significantly easier than the state’s cumbersome calling method.

The city has placed signs in English and Spanish in some city parks, urging people to download the NOVID app. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As a matter of fact, the city recently started a full informational blitz to encourage city and county residents – and even visitors – to download and use the app, said Rich Brown, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development. Signs written in English and Spanish urging people to download the app have been placed around town.

Likewise, with the blessing of the school administration, students at UWC have been encouraged to use the app since returning to the school last month, said Naomi Swinton, dean of students.

The NOVID app (available for free on Google Play and the App Store) will anonymously detect when users are within contact distance via a combination of ultrasound, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies, according to NOVID.org.

These interactions help build an anonymous network of connections, helping track cases as they are self-reported.

What makes NOVID different is adding ultrasound interaction to the Bluetooth and GPS technology, which cannot account for such things as walls and floors; thus, they can falsely record interactions.

“In a systematic study, we found that we avoid falsely recording interactions with 99.6% accuracy,” according to the website.

Further, the app allows organizations or institutions to create “communities,” or virtual groups of NOVID users, revealing prior unattainable community trends about the spread.

Santa Fe is in the process of working with NOVID developers to create such a dashboard for the city and county, Brown said, which will help officials track spreading trends.

“We’re creating a dashboard with the county and Department of Health to see a macro view of where concentrations are happening,” he said. “We’re working through a legal agreement with NOVID creators now.”

UWC already has gotten about half of its 190 students and 90 employees engaged in NOVID, said Alex Bavalsky, a second-year student who was part of a research group that helped recommend NOVID.

The goal, he said, is to get everyone within the school community to use it, thus helping create a firm bubble where the tracing can be very effective.

Bavalsky said he’s reached out to Las Vegas city officials to encourage residents there, as well as New Mexico Highlands University and Luna Community College students, to use the app.

Although the city of Las Vegas has not adopted any formal plan like Santa Fe has, said city manager Bill Taylor, it has sent a letter to the governor’s office recommending the state consider adopting NOVID.

Meanwhile, Brown said the saturation goal for Santa Fe is to reach about 5% usage by the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We don’t have a hard timeline, but we have a soft timeline,” he said. “We would love to get that 5% by Thanksgiving. That would be great, keeping in mind that’s one of those gathering points. Thanksgiving is when everybody comes together eating, congregating. We just passed Labor Day, and now we’re heading into winter cold and flu season.”

It would be great to surpass 5% but, realistically, that’s a long shot, Brown said.

“We’re targeting about 5% of the city and county,” he said. “That would allow us to build the viral aspect of it. It gives us enough of a glimpse to see where the movement is. If we get to 10%, that’s a fantastic number. But if we can get to 5%, we can see where it starts to accelerate and give us an early warning system.”

That would generate enough data that the city could also approach the governor’s office seeking statewide participation.

NOVID information is going out in water bills, and there is information about it on the city’s website and Facebook page. Bilingual yard signs have been posted in many city parks, as well, Brown said, particularly in the southwestern part of the city, where more than half of the local cases have been found.

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