Key success factors in safely reopening while minimizing the number of infections include expanded testing, contact tracing, and vaccine development. Contact tracing, part of the multipronged approach to fighting the virus, is a key strategy for preventing future spread.
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is a technique used to identify who has the disease and identify everyone they have been in close contact with during the timeframe when they may have been infectious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes; “public health staff then warn these exposed individuals (contacts) of their potential exposure as rapidly and sensitively as possible.” And on May 10, Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, told NPR that contact tracing is a time-tested investigation method used to successfully fight outbreaks of diseases including measles, HIV, and Ebola. It is key to halting the spread of COVID-19.
Contact tracing is a specialized skill that requires training and supervision. Two leading former federal health officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations – Andy Slavitt, former director of Medicare and Medicaid for President Obama, and Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration head for President Trump – are calling for $12 billion to help expand the contact tracing workforce. In an April 27 letter to House and Senate leaders, Slavitt and Gottlieb said, “We estimate the necessary contact tracing workforce needs to be expanded by 180,000 until such time as a safe, effective vaccine is on the market.” Other estimates of how many contact tracers are needed range from 100,000 to 300,000.
What is automated tracing and how does it work?
Technology can play a significant role in contact tracing. Many organizations are investing in and harnessing the power of technology to automate this process. Automated contact tracing supports the goal of accelerating the return of workforces by reducing the transmission of the virus through quick alerts. It enables organizations to protect their employees and more effectively manage the impact of COVID-19.
Automated contact tracing starts with the download of an app onto a cellphone. There are several contact tracing methods that could automatically collect data and track user’s movements, including location-tracking through GPS, identifying proximity contacts through Bluetooth, and usage of mobile phone towers to determine approximate location. In order for automated contact tracing to be successful, all employees at an organization will need to use the app. Many commentators agree that the preferred and most secure method is Bluetooth tracing. With Bluetooth tracing, short-range Bluetooth signals detect other users nearby and alert them anonymously if they were in contact with someone who has tested positive. The data is collected voluntarily and anonymized.
Cybersecurity and privacy
While concerns have been raised about privacy, a group of 300 academics recently said in an open letter that contact tracing apps that use automated Bluetooth tracing are far more privacy-preserving than apps that collect location data in a central store. Decentralized systems also pose less of a cybersecurity threat than those that are interoperable and share data with central or local health IT systems.
Should your organization implement contact tracing technology?
Implementing automated contact tracing at the enterprise level has the potential to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and lower the risk for exposure for employees, helping enable business continuity. By identifying when an employee has been in contact with someone infected with the virus, this automated approach can inform decisions on isolating exposed employees or having them self-quarantine at home.
Technology alone cannot solve this problem
Many companies and countries will rely heavily on technology. Some countries, like China, are currently enforcing invasive and mandatory data-sharing contact tracing. Even with this technology, these countries continue to use thousands of human contact tracers that are monitoring individual contacts and compiling data. The human element is a crucial piece to contain the spread of the virus. Automated contact tracing tools should be viewed as supplementing human contract tracing and helping their reach and efficacy.
Automated contact tracing has promise as a vital tool as we work together to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As organizations plan to reopen their operations, employee safety will remain paramount, and automated contact tracing represents a promising tool in this area. As Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and a former CDC investigator who focused on epidemics, told MIT Review, “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of contact tracing…It’s been at the cornerstone of every major epidemic investigation from SARS to Ebola and beyond.”
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