Staying on Track

In lieu of a statewide COVID-19 contact-tracing app, some New Mexico schools and cities are striking out on their own

In mid-July, New Mexico's COVID-19 daily case load hit 330 and its contact-tracers were taking a median average of 97 hours to reach and isolate people testing positive, far above the goal of 24 or fewer hours.

Since then, the state's cases have continued to drop and the health department reports contact-tracers have been meeting the state's gating criteria both for contacting positive cases and people they may have infected within 24 or 36 hours, respectively, since the start of August.

The state has not, however, rolled out any sort of digital contact tracing apps, although they have been mentioned several times throughout the pandemic as a possibility.

"We're not there yet," Health Department Acting Deputy Secretary Donnie Quintana tells SFR. "Our efforts have been tied to building the system…which encompasses the database, the ability to telecommute, the ability to send SMS text—that has been our focus. An application to support or supplement [the system] is part of the holistic approach; however, we haven't gotten to that point."

But the state has been working with other entities—schools and cities—who want to try out such apps. "We definitely don't want to hold anybody back from a utilization of an app that suits their needs," Quintana says.

For United World College high school senior Alex Bavalsky, finding a COVID-19 app to use on campus in Montezuma was a way to ensure both his education and the safety of the larger community. "When we closed in March, it was very traumatic," Bavalsky says. "My closest friends are here, my education is here…I think I speak for every single student and faculty member, [closing in March] was really sad and I would never want that to happen again."

During a series of Zoom meetings with the school community over the summer—a group that includes students from 90 different countries—questions arose about how to resume classes, dorm life and campus activities safely when school re-opened. A big question, Bavalsky says, was "how do we ensure if someone contracts COVID, of which there is a high probability, there's not a huge outbreak and we don't have to shut down again?" Having studied computer science and as part of a school with a heavy emphasis on community service, Bavalsky offered to research contact-tracing apps over the summer while he was home in Brooklyn, New York.

"I'm really into that," he says, "And I have a lot of free time. My summer wasn't particularly busy, as you might understand."

Bavalsky dove into research, even communicating directly with some developers. He decided to recommend NOVID, a mobile app developed at Carnegie Mellon University.  NOVID is completely anonymous and detects when users are close to other users through a combination of ultrasound, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies. As the app describes it, "by tracing interactions, NOVID builds an anonymous network of your connections. We help you understand the spread of COVID-19 around you by visualizing cases in your network of interactions."

Using NOVID also did not require UWC to have the health department officially approve its use in either the Apple or Google store, because it doesn't depend on using Apple and Google's contact-tracing API. School officials estimate approximately half of the 300-community campus have so far signed up to use the app. Bavalsky did seek out and receive a letter of support from the nearby City of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

"We love the students at the World College," Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo says. "They're such strong advocates for social issues." After he heard from Bavalsky, Trujillo says, "it sparked my curiosity as to maybe we could start using this app for the organization for the City of Las Vegas." Trujillo says that decision hasn't been made, "but we're exploring the possibility at this time of introducing it to our organization and possibly to the public."

The City of Santa Fe, as SFR reported on Sept. 1, recently rolled out a campaign encouraging residents to use the NOVID app as well. Rich Brown, director of the city's Office of Economic Development, said at the time the city also was pursuing a contract with NOVID that would provide the city an internal dashboard showing usage (the actual users would still be anonymous). Via email, Brown says the city is "in the diligence/negotiation stage of our agreement" and hopes to have "something ready to go in about two weeks."

At New Mexico State University, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Enrico Pontelli says he and others looked at the apps on the market "but most of them are very different than what we are trying to accomplish." So he and the head of the computer science department recruited three students to build their own, an app that would only track users while on campus, among other features. That app did require approval from the health department and extensive review to ensure it abides by privacy health laws as it will be sharing actual data with the state.

"Both Apple and Google set some high standards for anything that goes in the store," Pontelli says. "They request an endorsement from a government entity." NMSU reached out to the governor's office and was directed to the health department, who "were very receptive," Pontelli says, and also very focused on ensuring user privacy.

Recently approved and now available, the Aggie-COVID-19 app allows users to self-report positive test results to the campus health clinic. If users enable GPS tracking—which only works within the perimeter of the campus—the GPS locations are used for contact tracing. The app also has a web version, which allows users who don't want to use either GPS or wireless to self-report their locations. Computer science Ph.D student Fabio Tardivo, who developed the web version, characterized the project as challenging: "There were a couple of deadlines that were pretty close," he says, "but in the end we did it." The app also includes a symptom checker and other features.

Pontelli says NMSU is talking with other institutions, such as Doña Ana Community College, about using its app, and has already supplied the app source code to New Mexico Tech, which adapted it for use on its campus.

Van Romero, New Mexico Tech's vice president of research, says his institution also surveyed the commercial apps on the market, as well as the school community to ask under what conditions they would use a contact-tracing app. "Overwhelmingly, people said conditions for using it would be that the data was secure and that the app would only track people while they were here on campus," Romero says. NMSU's geo-fencing fit the bill and because they were given access to the source code, Romero says, "we were able to verify and or modify the security."

As for a statewide app, the health department did require NMSU to agree that if the state ever rolls out an app for statewide use, it will stop using its own.

"The ideal situation would be to have one application across the state and we still may get there," Quintana says.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.