Our greatest ally: What is coronavirus contact tracing and how does it work?

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How contact tracing is being influenced by technology.

The coronavirus pandemic is weighing heavily on everyone’s minds. With so much unknown swirling around, future outlooks can seem bleak. After all, no one wants to quarantine at home for another two or three months. If things go as planned, that won’t have to happen.

Lately, a new term has been circulating—contact tracing. Although it’s probably new to the majority of people, contact tracing has been used by experts for decades to stop the spread of infectious diseases.

Now, officials are looking towards tech as a possible solution for better contact tracing. Since it’s the most realistic way to end stay-at-home measures, tech-powered COVID-19 tracking looks promising. Thanks to team-ups between tech giants like Google and Apple, it may be arriving sooner than previously expected.

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How Does Contact Tracing Work?

Whenever an infectious disease outbreak occurs, experts start to track it. Understanding how an illness spreads is key to stopping it. The novel coronavirus is highly contagious and spreads quickly throughout communities.

As such, stopping outbreaks early on is of the utmost importance. Contact tracing is used when a person is infected to determine who they came into contact with during a predetermined period. For COVID-19, that period is typically 14 days. Experts then reach out to individuals who test positive and determine who they had contact with, and so on.

If that process sounds taxing, that’s because it is. Contact tracing is effective (to some degree) but it takes a lot of people and time to complete.

When the first cases of coronavirus arrived in the United States (in Washington and California) officials used contact tracing to try and prevent community spread. Unfortunately, those efforts weren’t enough and the outbreaks there got worse.

Experts eventually had to give up on tracing and instead turned to “mitigation” methods. These include things like closing schools and businesses and enacting stay-at-home orders. Currently, most of the United States finds itself in this position.

The Limits of Contact Tracing

Although contact tracing is a helpful tool in slowing down the spread of an outbreak, it has its limits.

For one, people aren’t perfect. When an infected person is interviewed, they won’t be able to remember every person they came into contact with during the previous two weeks. Moreover, it’s impossible to identify strangers like grocery store clerks and delivery people.

This means that even the best contact tracing maps will have holes. When a disease is as contagious as COVID-19, those gaps can easily spark a widespread outbreak.

Another limitation of contact tracing is the size of an outbreak. In Seattle, the number of cases rose quickly. This made it impossible for experts to track down every contact of every infected person. When the scale of an outbreak gets too large, it’s too late for contact tracing—at least using manual methods.

Experts hope that technology may be able to help in both of these areas. By removing some of the human error related to contact tracing, tech may be able to make the process more efficient and more effective.

Getting Back to Normal

As people remain stuck in their homes, the question on the minds of many is, “When will this all be over?”

Sadly, that question can’t be answered right now. The course of the COVID-19 outbreak is simply too unpredictable to create solid timelines. Quarantine could last for a few more weeks or a few more months. Only time will tell.

However, a few things are clear. For things to return to normal, the U.S. needs to increase its testing capabilities and ramp up its contact tracing efforts. In many parts of the country the number of new daily cases is already starting to decrease. As this trend continues, the importance of contact tracing will only grow.

John Swartzberg of the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health notes that, “We had to give up fairly quickly on contact tracing.”

A staggering number of cases forced this. However, as that figure starts to shrink again case tracking will need to begin again. Doing so will help prevent a secondary outbreak while simultaneously allowing people to get back to work.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield told NPR, “It [contact tracing] is going to be critical. We can’t afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission—so it is going to be very aggressive, what I call ‘block and tackle.’”

How Tech Makes Tracing More Efficient

Moving forward, it appears that technology will play a key role in the tracing efforts for the COVID-19 pandemic. Elsewhere in the world, governments have found success by using it.

However, those cases come along with their fair share of controversy. Authorities in places like South Korea and Singapore were able to “flatten the curve” by tapping into things like surveillance cameras, cellphone location data, and credit card transactions. While using these strategies is an effective way of tracking a disease, they are also major privacy violations.

In the United States, that is not going to work.

Redfield weighed in on the use of tech, saying, “People are looking at all the different modern technology that could be brought to bear to make contact tracing more efficient and effective. Are there more tech-savvy ways to be more comprehensive in contact tracing? Currently these things are under aggressive evaluation.”

One of those methods is particularly interesting. It involves the use of short-range Bluetooth transmissions from a user’s smartphone. Anonymous strings of numbers are emitted constantly. Phones that come into close contact with each other record the numbers that they “hear.”

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, their anonymous codes are uploaded to a public database. Then, notifications are sent to any phone that picked up one of the numbers, meaning that its owner was in contact with the infected person.

This privacy-focused method of tech-powered contact tracing is gaining a lot of momentum. MIT published a research study documenting the system late last week.

Moreover, Google and Apple announced that they are teaming up to create an iOS and Android friendly version of the system that will launch in mid-May. That will help change the game when it comes to contact tracing.

Automated Contact Tracing Is Key

Contact tracing is going to play a key role in the world in the months to come. It will help governments ease social distancing regulations and help the economy get moving once again. A tech-powered solution will make this possible.

The system on its way from Google and Apple looks promising. However, it likely won’t be the only way that officials utilize tech. Applications like artificial intelligence (AI) could also come into play. Contact tracing, especially when it is done with technology, leaves behind troves of data. For human researchers, crunching through it to find patterns can be extremely time-consuming. The right AI program could do it in half the time.

Other tech solutions exist as well. A line of smart thermometers from Kinsa is making waves as well. These use Bluetooth to connect to a user’s smartphone and upload anonymous temperature information to a database. Then, researchers can use that data to create a “heat map” of the United States. By subtracting normal results, they are able to quickly determine where the next outbreak is forming.

While this method is far more generalized than contact tracing, it has helped researchers identify COVID-19 hotspots faster than the CDC.

Simply put, tracking the spread of COVID-19 is essential. Doing it manually isn’t feasible. As such, it’s inevitable that tech-based, automated contact tracing is imminent. Not only will this help put an end to the COVID-19 outbreak, it will also help speed up the recovery of the economy.

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