University of Alabama System to push contact tracing app, require online health checks

(This May 21 story has been refiled to clarify university system name)

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - The University of Alabama System will require students and staff returning to its three campuses in the coming months to submit online health checks regularly and encourage them to download its contact tracing app, officials told Reuters on Thursday.

Researchers at several dozen U.S. universities are developing mobile apps that aim to curb new infections of the novel coronavirus, but Alabama is one of the first U.S. school systems to move forward on deploying such an app.

Students and employees will be reminded to sign into a website with their school login credentials every three days and report whether they have any symptoms related to COVID-19, the sometimes deadly respiratory illness caused by the virus.

Those reluctant to fill it out may be asked to stay away from campus, but an official enforcement system has not been finalized, said Selwyn Vickers, dean of University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) school of medicine.

The contact tracing mobile app, which is being built by Birmingham-based software developer MotionMobs, will use programming code released on Wednesday by Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google that notifies people who were near users reporting as virus-positive. Users can remain anonymous the entire time.

Its use will not be required because some phones cannot operate the app, and Apple and Google also set rules preventing institutions and the state from making it mandatory, said Sue Feldman, director of graduate programs in health informatics at UAB.

But the app will be open to anyone in Alabama, she said, and some Birmingham-based companies such as Altec Inc and Regions Bank are considering telling employees to use the contact tracing and health assessment tools.

“We are encouraged by the progress being made and look forward to learning more about the contact tracing system under development,” said Regions Bank spokeswoman Evelyn Mitchell.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Aurora Ellis