Santa Fe city officials are working with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University to implement a first-of-its-kind smartphone app that would let residents track when COVID-19 is impacting their social circle.
The program, called NOVID, has been promoted on select college campuses. It will be the first time officials from a U.S. city are seeking to adopt the technology for widespread use. The app is free and available to anyone.
Mayor Alan Webber said in a briefing Monday the city soon will be signing an agreement with the team at Carnegie Mellon to offer the app to residents, though it has been promoting it on signs around town.
Po-Shen Loh, a math professor at Carnegie Mellon, said the app models social networks to accurately measure where COVID-19 is spreading and alert people before they come into contact with someone who was likely exposed to the virus.
"I think we're the first city to really try to put it out front and center as a radar detecting system for COVID," Webber said. "Until vaccinations become much more pervasive, this is a tool that really adds to Santa Fe's ability to keep people safe."
According to NOVID's website, the project offers "a next generation mobile application" that "allows users to proactively make decisions based on their risk of infection."
The app offers an early warning network, accurate contact tracing data, ensures anonymity and can work in the background of other mobile phone applications without using too much power, according to NOVID.
Loh developed the app in concert with nearly two-dozen students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. In an interview, Loh said he expects other cities to adopt the system, which he said could be applicable to future pandemics for other diseases.
"It's a breakthrough," Loh said. "This is something that previously did not exist elsewhere. The value goes far beyond COVID."
The app informs people of possible exposure from their social interactions and allows them to notify others who may have come into contact with a possible exposure, or to be notified of a positive test from someone in their network.
The app doesn’t collect personal information and provides for anonymity, according to NOVID’s website.
If every person in Santa Fe who downloads the app convinces two others to do the same, it will be successful, Loh said. The idea, he said, is to take the concept of viral replication and turn it back against the virus itself.
Rich Brown, director of community and economic development for the city, said in a statement Santa Fe officials are currently looking into the ways they could use the technology to battle the COVID-19 crisis.
After downloading the app — information can be found at novid.org — residents should enter the code "SANTAFE" in the settings page to join the Santa Fe community within the system.
Meanwhile, the city is in the process of unveiling a vaccine distribution plan. State health officials submitted their 60-page vaccine distribution blueprint to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October, though they didn't have a target date for when a vaccine might be available to the general public.
Webber said City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill was meeting with other city officials Monday to discuss the city's vaccination distribution plan. City spokesman David Herndon did not offer other details about the plan, which he said is still being developed.
Health officials have expressed confidence in surmounting obstacles for distributing the vaccine across New Mexico, but have acknowledged in the distribution plan that the state has unique challenges, including a rural and far-flung population served by sparse health services and facilities.