November 17, 2020

Inspiring teamwork during unprecedented times

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As I mentioned in last month’s message, it is important we highlight the different areas of our school that played key roles during the challenging months of our initial COVID-19 response. A pivotal initiative in that response was the development and implementation of GuideSafe™, the COVID-19 reentry platform developed by a team of experts here at UAB. By now you are intimately familiar with GuideSafe™ since each day, School of Medicine employees who are designated as hybrid or in-person use HealthCheck, the GuideSafe™ symptom and exposure screening tool, and Event Passport as a part of the university’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, UAB United. Many of you have also downloaded the GuideSafe™ anonymous exposure notification app developed in partnership with Google and Apple and encouraged your friends and family to do the same to manage the spread of this virus in our state. No doubt you have also heard of the state-wide entry and sentinel testing initiative for higher education in Alabama, which with the tools in the GuideSafe™ platform have provided a robust and lauded response to this pandemic. I am so proud that a project of this scope and innovation was born right here on our campus. I want to tell you a bit about how this vision took shape, so let’s jump back in time to that critical period in all of our lives when COVID-19 became a reality for our community.

March 2020 was a difficult time for all of us. We were quickly learning about COVID-19, gaining insight about how the pandemic could impact both our personal and professional lives, and worrying what the future might hold. Meanwhile, on UAB’s campus, the seeds of GuideSafe™’s development were being planted.

On April 14, 2020, the University of Alabama System announced a COVID-19 Health and Safety Task Force, consisting of roughly three dozen members with a variety of expertise. The multidisciplinary team was charged with creating a framework for the safest possible return to on-campus instruction for the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). In addition to developing a comprehensive guide for how our System’s campuses would create a safe environment for faculty, staff, and students, that effort also resulted in the GuideSafe™ COVID-19 response platform, which incorporates a set of tools for symptom reporting, exposure notification, and event entry, as well as testing for campus entry and ongoing infection monitoring.

The origins of the development of GuideSafe™ began in early spring 2020. UAB experts led by Sue Feldman, R.N., M.Ed., Ph.D., professor in the UAB School of Health Professions and UAB School of Medicine, Mohanraj Thirumalai, MSEE, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Health Professions., and Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., professor of Anthropology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, created a symptom and exposure reporting tool to identify emerging COVID-19 hot spots across the state. The public website,, is still a multi-channel geographical symptom tracker platform driven by crowdsourced, consumer-generated data collection that is inclusive and representative, with an emphasis on underserved communities and underrepresented populations.’s successful development and implementation under exceedingly tight deadlines, while leveraging UAB’s impressive depth and breadth of expertise and key partnerships, provided key lessons and a roadmap for the development of GuideSafe™.

GuideSafe™ launched in May 2020 and was supported by Alabama federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds. From the tools to testing, bringing GuideSafe™ to life took a village – a talented, committed, hard-working village of informaticians, infectious disease physicians, public health practitioners, pathologists, research computing leaders, data analysts, marketing and communications professionals, anthropologists, and administrative, operations, and other physician leaders. I shared with you last month about the impressive leadership and effort of Pathology Chair, Dr. George Netto, and assistant professor of Laboratory Medicine, Dr. Sixto Leal, and Dr. Barbara Van Der Pol, on the robust testing component of GuideSafe™. This provided COVID-19 testing free of charge for all students at Alabama colleges and universities prior to the fall 2020 entry to campus, making it the largest-scale higher education testing initiative in the nation. Ongoing sentinel testing collects information useful for assessing the stability or change in COVID-19 spread across campuses. The GuideSafe™ Testing Initiative (formerly known as Testing for Alabama) was led by Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean of global health, and Bob Phillips, executive director of GuideSafe™. Sentinel testing was under the direction of Dr. Anupam Agarwal, executive vice dean.

But when I said it took a village, I mean just that. So many across the UAB campus came together and worked tirelessly to bring this vision to reality, all while doing their “day job”. I want to thank Toni Leeth, MPH, associate dean of strategic planning and administration, who was a driving force with the GuideSafe™ testing initiative. Toni spent countless hours meeting with leaders at universities and colleges from across our state to explain the program, work with them to fit it into their own health and safety plans, and to once again bring UAB’s value to the entire state through GuideSafe™ testing. I must also thank Rosie O’Beirne, UAB’s chief digital strategy and marketing officer, whose University Relations team led marketing and communication of GuideSafe™ across all of Alabama, developing promotion tools and resources to ensure understanding and participation. A community testing program like this one isn’t possible without an informatics platform, and this effort required three. Ralph Zottola, assistant vice president for research computing, and others on the UAB Information Technology team navigated significant challenges and in little time to ensure campus, individual and test result data was secure and delivered to individuals and school officials quickly to support the health and safety of the whole campus. Dr. Curtis Carver, vice president for information technology and chief information officer, utilized the team approach to develop the GuideSafe™️ Exposure Notification app through a collaboration between the Alabama Department of Public Health, UAB, Google, and Apple. Alabama was one of the first states in the U.S. to launch Google and Apple’s joint exposure notification technology.

Statewide, over 40 colleges and universities are currently participating in GuideSafe™, with over 200,000 daily Healthcheck users. The GuideSafe™ Exposure Notification app has been downloaded by over 110,000 participants across the state, with over 237 positive diagnosis responses, alerting potentially thousands of people of potential exposures and jump-starting the contact tracing process to minimize further spread.

I hope you can see what amazing things our UAB community, including the School of Medicine, can accomplish when we join forces to combat COVID-19. The GuideSafe™ Exposure Notification app is the second-highest app in terms of state downloads, and Alabama was the third state in the nation to receive this kind of app. This platform can save lives. If you have not yet downloaded the anonymous exposure notification app, I encourage you to do so today. If you are randomly selected for sentinel testing, I hope that you will participate, helping us ensure a safe campus for our faculty, staff, trainees, and community. I could not be more pleased with how GuideSafe™ has and will continue to keep campuses and communities across Alabama safe, protected, and healthy.