The first batch of BioButtons has arrived at Oakland University as cases of COVID-19 increase on campus and throughout Michigan.
The university received 1,500 of the wearable devices for students and faculty and began distributing them at the beginning of the week, said David Stone, OU’S chief research officer.
The devices, purchased from Denver-based BioIntelliSense for $90,000, are being used for early detection of the coronavirus by measuring temperature and vital signs. Funded through federal CARES Act money, they are being offered free of charge to OU students and employees.
“This is a way to limit outbreaks,” Stone said. “We want to keep one case in a dorm from becoming 50.”
COVID-19 cases tied to OU remained in the single digits this fall until the last week in October, when 29 commuter students tested positive for the coronavirus, according to university data. The following week, OU had an outbreak on campus with 13 residential students testing positive along with another 47 commuters.
Many colleges and universities in Michigan became coronavirus hot spots when classes resumed in late August and early September. That caused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to temporarily suspend in-person learning and some schools, including University of Michigan, to tell students to stay home in the winter.
Nearly all classes at Oakland this fall have been online, although 1,700 students remain living on campus. The university has yet to decide what proportion of classes will be conducted in-person for winter, Stone said.
OU contemplated making the BioButton devices mandatory for those on campus but quickly scrapped the idea. Stone said the more students who do opt into wearing the BioButton, the better the chances of containing outbreaks and keeping campus open.
The biggest hurdle will be getting students comfortable with the idea of wearing a data tracker, he said.
“We’ve done very little marketing, and we certainly haven’t knocked down a lot of concerns about student privacy,” he said. “We’re trying to get students to understand that their health data isn’t compromised… We really did design this in a way that the university does not get anybody’s data.”
Here’s how the BioButton works: The medical grade device about the size of a half dollar sticks to the upper chest and connects via Bluetooth to a mobile phone app, which alerts users to potential symptoms of the coronavirus. Additionally, if someone wearing a BioButton tests positive for the virus, the app alerts other BioButton users who were in close proximity to that individual.
The device is used for contact tracing, but it does not track the movement of students, Stone said. The BioButton has a lifespan of about 90 days.
A couple hundred of the devices have been claimed so far. Stone said he expects more to be distributed next week when classes resume after Thanksgiving. He said the university expects to purchase more to meet demand.
“We have lots of students going home to families,” he said. “We still think there’s real value individually to people knowing their status.”