• By Jay Shedd

Contact tracing: Using mobile technology to curb the spread of disease


By the time you’re reading this, it’s likely that most, if not all, of the stricter government restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have been lifted. For me, after weeks of social distancing and conducting virtual meetings with team members over video conferencing, it’s refreshing to be able to welcome customers and make my own visits to my favorite local businesses.

But we’re not out of the woods yet. Medical experts have been warning about possible future waves of infection. Luckily, mobile technology is poised to save the day. Digital contact tracing through smartphones could be a major defense against a reoccurrence of Covid-19 or the spread of future disease.

Contact tracing is a routine and vital procedure public health officials conduct to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Traditionally, this involves asking a patient who he or she has had close contact with, then contacting each of these people by phone or other means to inform them of possible exposure. To reduce infections, public health officials need to act quickly. This is a laborious task and often involves the need to hire and train additional staff or volunteers.

As people resume their normal routines after government stay-at-home orders, contact tracing could play an important role in preventing another wave of infections and lockdowns. Digital contact tracing can help to automate and speed up the process to prevent the disease from spreading. Instead of blanket stay-at-home orders, only those who know they have had some contact would go into quarantine. This is especially helpful if you take into account that symptoms of Covid-19 often appear after up to two weeks, if they manifest at all.

Digital contact tracing is done by a smartphone app that uses Bluetooth or GPS to notify a user if he or she has been in the proximity of someone who has tested positive of Covid-19. There are different methods for digital contact tracing. Implementation depends on a country’s stance on privacy.

One method uses GPS and other information, like credit card records, to track cases and collect data by location. China and South Korea used a digital contact tracing tool that tracked locations and contact. The tool was linked to government databases and nationwide surveillance cameras to notify users of proximity to a person that tested positive of the virus and to create maps of high concentration areas.

Another method is the use of Bluetooth signals to track proximity. When a user (and their smartphone) gets in Bluetooth range of a person that tested positive, the user will be notified. Singapore initially used location, but updated their app to use Bluetooth to detect proximity. Data collected from the Bluetooth signal is be stored on the user’s device and sent to the ministry of health. However, the data is automatically deleted after 21 days and is only released with the consent of the user. This is the option preferred by countries with high concerns over privacy.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control released information about what a digital contact tracing tool could look like in the country. The CDC envisioned a tool that can be used for both case management and proximity tracking. On the case management side, public health officials would be able to collect information on cases and contacts and follow up if necessary; users could report symptoms and contacts and get official information; and would allow for automated notifications and follow-up.

The success of digital contact tracing also relies on the cooperation of people. The more people download the app or sign up for the feature, the more accurate the data will be. For the most part, use of the app is voluntary.

This is tied in with concerns over privacy. Before downloading such an app, citizens would have to trust it first and many people do not agree with their location and other data be handled by an app that is operated by or connected in any way to the government. For many, giving government access to personal data is a slippery slope that could lead to more infringements to liberty and privacy rights.

The refinement of digital contact tracing technology couldn’t have come at a more desperate, albeit, opportune time. The tools available are very promising because of the smartphones’ ubiquity and the reach of the data networks that support them.

The potential of this tool is so widely supported by the global community that Apple and Google—sworn enemies—have teamed up to help governments around the world by developing the technology to track the spread of Covid-19. The tech giants aim to use Bluetooth technology. On May 4, the companies released a joint statement announcing protections for users.

These include preventing the apps from collecting location data, ensuring the apps will only be used by health authorities and will not be monetized; will require consent of the user and will be disabled once contact tracing is no longer needed. The technology is meant to support and enhance public health efforts, rather than replacing them. Apple and Google are working together to offer their digital contact tracing tools on both iOS and Android platforms, enabling broader user participation and interaction.

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So, what about countries with lower smartphone penetration? Digital contact tracing can continue with tracking based on mobile signals and sending warnings via text message, but this does bring up privacy concerns.

Smartphone and data network penetration is fairly healthy in Guam, the CNMI and the rest of the region. Digital contact tracing in the Pacific, like the U.S. and other countries, could ease the burden on overworked or understaffed public health departments that would otherwise have to do manual contact tracing. Currently, any contact tracing that needs to be done in the Marianas and Guam is done manually by public health officials.

In one instance, Guam public health officials discovered a small cluster in a local church. News reports state that the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services was provided with a listing of more than 300 names of members in the congregation. That is a lot of people to call.

Preventing lockdowns in the Pacific is especially important because for many of the islands, tourism is a major part of the economy. These days, visitors bring their smartphones with them when they travel and purchase prepaid SIMs or mobile hotspot devices. An app that uses proximity tracking could keep both visitors and the many island residents that work in the tourism industries safe, while also allowing the tourism to continue.

Moreover, digital contact tracing empowers people to make informed decisions about their health. As with many things in today’s digital age that allow users to obtain instant information, one would need only to check their notifications and see if they should see a doctor or self-quarantine.

Whether its preventing Covi-19 or other diseases, I’m a great believer in the power of technology and that it will be used for the greater good.

— Jay R. Shedd is senior director of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. Send feedback to jay.shedd@itehq.net

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