In the wake of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, UC Santa Barbara Student Health was bracing itself for an incredible surge in cases across the university’s student body and the surrounding community of Isla Vista. Luckily, this surge never fully materialized, leaving Isla Vista in a bubble as cases soared across the country and lockdowns were implemented in several states, including California.
Ali Javanbakht, medical director of UCSB Student Health, sees reasons for this. Although Isla Vista may seem like a poster child for irresponsible college communities, with a dense and young population that has difficulties with being consistent about wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding gatherings, there is another factor which serves to limit the spread of COVID-19 both to Isla Vista and from Isla Vista.
According to Javanbakht, people in Isla Vista are largely confined within the community limits. There isn’t as much movement to and from other places as seen in some bedroom communities elsewhere in the county. For the most part, students don’t commute far outside of I.V. to go to work and then return in the afternoon; this serves to limit the geographic spread of COVID-19, Javanbakht says.
Isla Vista and communities in the rest of the county have since volleyed back and forth in their roles as the primary drivers contributing to COVID-19’s once-again rapid rise in the area and Santa Barbara County’s push to the purple tier, according to Javanbakht.
“The numbers have definitely gone up. But it’s always been this kind of fluctuation of rise and then a plateau, and then a drop off and then a rise. I’m getting ready to continue to see that,” Javanbakht said.
“I think we have a group of students who choose to engage in risky behavior — big gatherings without wearing a mask — but it is a smaller percentage. Most students really want to do the right thing. But it’s that small percentage that’s really driving those numbers.”
Even today, while numerous students in I.V. have tested positive for COVID-19 over several waves and there are currently 28 people in I.V. with active COVID-19 cases, none have become acutely ill and none have died.
However, I.V. has seen one death; the decedent was between 50 and 69 years old and was “associated with a congregate care facility.”
“If we’re able to really implement good, strong consistent measures here, it could well be that we really drop those numbers down lower than it is in most other places in the area, the county or the state,” Javanbakht said.
“But for that to happen, there needs to be a very strong, robust infrastructure of doing what needs to be done, which means getting masks out there, getting all the businesses involved really enforcing six-foot distancing and having consequences for people who don’t follow, having a really strong marketing messaging presence — right in the heart of Isla Vista. We don’t have any of that.”
While there is a very large community interest in testing in Isla Vista and capacity has improved compared to in the early stages of the pandemic, the county still struggles to provide adequate testing to match demand, according to Javanbakht.
To supplement traditional means to contain the spread, such as testing and contract tracing, UCSB has entered into the California COVID Notify pilot program, alongside UC San Diego, UC San Francisco Health, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, the Berkeley Lab, UC Los Angeles and UC Riverside.
California COVID Notify is a smartphone exposure notification system intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 by alerting users if they may have been exposed to another person in the system who themselves has tested positive for the virus.
Katie Mankins, the director for special projects at UCSB, has been closely involved in the implementation of California COVID Notify at UCSB, acting as the campus lead and coordinating with the UCSB COVID-19 Response Team. She also distributes keys that are used by infected individuals to notify other potential contacts in the system of their positive test results.
According to Mankins, a significant advantage of COVID Notify compared to standard contact tracing is that it provides an earlier notification of potential exposures and doesn’t rely on people’s recollection of who they have come into contact with.
Instead, people are informed of potential exposures based on proximity. When phones with the app have Bluetooth enabled, they log other phones in the service which they come into contact with using a random identification number. Besides this numeric key, the app doesn’t log any information regarding the location of the contact or the identity of the other users.
“When somebody contacts you to do contact tracing interviews after you’ve gotten a positive diagnosis … that might be, you know, a couple days after that original test [result] … if you’re using the app and you decide you want to share your positive test result with other users, the app is giving people you may have been in contact with an earlier notification of the potential exposure,” Mankins said.
“[Also], when you’re doing a traditional contact tracing interview, you’re being asked questions about, ‘Where were you? Who were you with …’ A lot of questions revolve around people that you know … but you might have been in contact with somebody that you don’t know, who later tested positive for COVID-19,” Mankins said.
Mankins believes that incorporating California COVID Notify into the infrastructure of COVID-19 prevention and tracking in Isla Vista will improve the robustness of the system and better inform those in the community who choose to become users.
“I’m hoping that people will understand that by using it, they’re helping slow the spread of transmission,” Mankins said.
“One of our frequently asked questions is: ‘Well, how many exposure notifications will I get?’ And the answer is: ‘Who knows?’ It depends entirely on you, and where you are and who you’re around. There is a feature on the app where it will tell you that basically, it’s still working. But … depending on if you were working remotely or staying home — except to go out and do essential errands — you might never get an exposure notification.”
However, the fact that people must opt in to California COVID Notify means that the web of COVID-19 tracking at UCSB will still have holes.
Despite the app’s stated assurance of safeguarding users’ privacy — it doesn’t gather names, contact information, the identity of those you meet or even your location — there are still likely some who won’t opt in, either due to a lack of awareness or other concerns.
“I can only speculate on why it was set up this way where it’s so optional. It’s something that at least a lot [of people] in the healthcare field feel [should be] much more required,” Javanbakht said.
“I think part of it is just our culture. We have this inherent suspicion of our data and government involvement, and this reverence for autonomy and personal freedom.”