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UNC System joins North Carolina in rollout of app tracking COVID-19 exposure


The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched a new app on Tuesday called SlowCOVIDNC to notify someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of SlowCOVIDNC.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched a new app on Tuesday called SlowCOVIDNC to notify someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus. 

After UNC has been shut down for over a month, the UNC System is promoting the use of this app in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 on Chapel Hill's de-densified campus and across the state.

Every 10-20 minutes, the app generates a string of random letters, called a token, that links the date of exposure between phones of different app users that are within six feet of each other. The app then notifies users of COVID-19 exposures through Bluetooth between phones. 

“It basically keeps track of how long you're exposed to that other phone, and if you're exposed for six feet or less for more than 15 minutes," said Sam Gibbs, NCDHHS deputy secretary for technology and operations.

If that phone user reports to the app that they have tested positive for COVID-19, individuals that had been within six feet of the phone would get a notification, Gibbs said. 

Users do not have to enter any information to use the app, but Bluetooth must be enabled to properly track exposures. NCDHHS assures user privacy and that no personal data will be collected.  

“Even if somebody broke into this and was going to look at the information, it's just a bunch of random code numbers that are not personal or identifiable to location information," Gibbs said. "So that's why we chose this, because it is super secure.” 

The program was designed jointly by Apple and Google.

“Apple and Google's approach was that they wanted to make sure that it was totally anonymous,” Gibbs said. “The state, we really care a lot about privacy and security for our residents here, and as we had our private security folks look at the apps, we just thought that this was a better approach for our citizens.”

Faculty, staff and students in the UNC System are encouraged to use the app.

“The SlowCOVIDNC app is a great resource provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” UNC Media Relations said in an email. “The University was not involved in developing the app but we do encourage students to download it to help slow the spread of COVID-19 through the Apple App Store and Google Play.”

The University shared the news about the app to students on numerous social media platforms. 

Delaney Phelps, a first-year history major, said she sees the various benefits of the app.

“I plan on downloading the app,” Phelps said. “I'm definitely very careful about COVID-19 and possible exposure, so any help I can get is something I'm interested in." 

NCDHHS has been working alongside higher education systems in North Carolina to implement the new app on campuses, Gibbs said. 

Students reporting positive test results will receive further information about next steps for their specific university on the app. 

“When you get a positive test, you're going to go to a website, and it's going to give you a unique code to key in,” Gibbs said. “When you key in that code, there's another menu there that will be your identifier. At that point, you'll identify yourself as a UNC student. There are some web pages that the application will send you to the specific information for each individual college and university.”

While test reporting is voluntary, it is highly encouraged. Those who are exposed are strongly recommended by the NCDHHS to quarantine after receiving information from the app. 

Phelps said she hopes the app will help with the state's response to COVID-19. 

“Overall, I think the app looks really good,” Phelps said. “I'm just glad that our state is making an effort to help citizens. It makes me proud of North Carolina.”

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