University launches website to screen for COVID-19 before allowing access to buildings

Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 1:50pm

The ResponsiBLUE website launched Monday of this week.

The ResponsiBLUE website launched Monday of this week. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

There's a new step this year for those wishing to enter the University of Michigan buildings.

The University launched ResponsiBLUE, a website created to help students, faculty and staff reduce the spread of COVID-19 on campus, on Monday as the school prepares for the hybrid fall semester beginning next week.

Robert Ernst, executive director of University Health Service and associate vice president for health and wellness in Student Life, said epidemiology experts at the School of Public Health believe checking symptoms daily can help during the pandemic in a number of ways.

“The daily exercise of performing a self-assessment for symptoms is a healthy habit that may also reinforce other healthy behaviors,” Ernst said. “Next, if there are symptoms present, the program alerts the person to isolate and also provides contact information for recommended next steps. Also, in a deidentified way the aggregated data for individuals living in group settings like residence halls can provide a daily assessment of usual illness. A change in that rate might signal a cluster of cases and trigger more targeted assessment.”

ResponsiBLUE asks a set of three questions to check for COVID-19 symptoms and close contact with someone diagnosed within the last 14 days. After answering the questions, an individual either receives a green checkmark, meaning they are cleared to enter buildings, or an exclamation point, at which point they are given the next steps on how to proceed.

All members of the campus community are required to use ResponsiBLUE each day before entering any University building. Results “expire,” meaning community members have to complete another screening to enter buildings again, after 12 hours.

It is not required for individuals living and taking classes remotely.

Students told The Daily they felt the tool could be helpful to reduce the spread of the virus on campus, but were not confident students would answer the screening questions honestly.

LSA sophomore Akshay Gopinathan said ResponsiBLUE is an important first measure for the University to take in recording exposure to COVID-19, though it does depend on honesty.

“It’s important to know who else could have been exposed to COVID,” Gopinathan said. “It comes down to students’ integrity, but I think the app is a great way to start.”

The tool will be updated throughout the semester to include additional features that can help community members make public health-informed decisions. Information and Technology Services developed the service with input from the Office of Research and University leaders.

LSA sophomore Sudharsana Lakshminarasimhan said responding falsely might be common among students and that other secondary measures, like temperature checks, should be used along with ResponsiBLUE to increase its effectiveness.

“I think to stop for 10 seconds and show your green checkmark wherever they ask and keep moving is definitely very convenient to use, but I don’t know much about it in terms of effectiveness,” he said. “It’s super easy to just say no to all the questions (on ResponsiBLUE) to just get into the library or to print something, so I doubt people will be as honest as they can.”

LSA senior Bhoomika Gupta said adding additional questions to ResponsiBLUE could increase its effectiveness by helping students, faculty and staff decide whether or not they should get tested. Gupta said questions regarding maskless contact or being in large groups could help better determine if someone should be able to enter a building.

“I’m wondering if it could be less black and white as a green and red checkmark,” Gupta said. “I know when it asks such few questions, it’s hard to assess whether you may have COVID or not.”

In addition to temperature checks, students pointed to widespread testing as another measure that, along with ResponsiBLUE, can help stop the spread of coronavirus on campus. The University currently plans to implement surveillance testing of approximately 3,000-3,500 community members a week, but the testing protocols have been criticized by experts who feel there needs to be more testing to ensure any outbreaks can be contained.

Public Health junior Jameson Swanson disagreed with adding more questions because it may make fewer students want to participate. However, he said providing access to free testing through ResponsiBLUE may be more effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

“I think if you add more questions, it could make (fewer) people participate,” Swanson said. “If someone says ‘yes’ to the symptoms or any other questions, (the University) should give them access to a free test or a location to go to for a free test. That way you have a way to connect the red checkmark to an actual positive or negative case.”

In a town hall with residential staff Monday, Ernst said testing would not stop students from contracting COVID in response to residential advisers’ requests for increased testing.

“We don’t test the health care workers, nurses and doctors and things, who are really seeing folks — they’re not tested, I’ve never been tested,” Ernst said. “(I’ve been going) to the hospital every week since March, and many of my peers also have never been tested ... Having a test doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID.”

Gopinathan said answering some questions may be difficult for students who don’t have access to necessary materials, like a thermometer. 

“Some people may not have a thermometer available to answer what their temperature may be,” he said. “They may lie about it or just choose not to answer it, which can harm the University.”

Ernst agreed there were some limitations to ResponsiBLUE since it cannot mandate honesty among users nor can it provide contact tracing. Along with the use of ResponsiBLUE, Ernst said students, faculty and staff must also follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“To be helpful as a surveillance tool, it requires that a high percentage of users enter data honestly on a daily basis,” Ernst said. “Unlike some similar technology, this program does not track location (privacy concern), so it is not helpful for contact tracing. It also does not restrict access to facilities.”

Daily Staff Reporter Saini Kethireddy can be reached at skethi@umich.edu.