According to scientists, epidemiologists, and other public health experts, the only way to control the spread of COVID-19 and return life to some semblance of normality is to identify as many COVID-19 positive people as possible, isolate them from the rest of the population, and significantly increase the amount of testing being done.
Success will require a multi-pronged approach that includes widely available testing, contact tracing to identify chains of infection, and isolation for those who test positive or have been in contact with an infected person.
Of these measures, contact tracing is the most difficult and labor-intensive activity. Contact tracing involves:
- interviewing COVID-19 patients to discover with whom they have interacted in the previous two weeks and logging their status as positive, asymptomatic, quarantined, etc.;
- contacting those people to alert them that they may have been exposed; and
- interviewing those people, and their potential networks, until the end of the infection chain is reached.
The bulk of this painstaking work is done by contact tracers — people who are trained to interview COVID-19-positive individuals, map their chains of association, and alert people in the chain about possible exposure, often leveraging technology every step of the way to guide the tracking and logging process. Currently, hundreds of thousands of contact tracers are being trained and deployed throughout the United States in an aggressive push to control the spread of COVID-19.
Privacy a primary concern
Data privacy is of course a key concern in any such undertaking. Many Americans are understandably wary of the sort of smartphone apps used in South Korea, Singapore, and Australia that turn a person’s phone into a personal tracking device. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found nearly 60% of Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert system currently under development by large technology companies. Such solutions require the public to voluntarily download the app on their phone, and assume a host of uncontrollable variables — e.g., that people always carry their phones, keep them charged, keep Bluetooth on, and don’t try to thwart the app in other ways.
The efficacy of smartphone-based tracking apps is far from proven and may not work at all in a country as skeptical about government surveillance as the United States. According to Wired magazine, states such as New York, California, and Massachusetts, and cities such as Baltimore and San Francisco have looked carefully at cutting-edge contact tracing solutions and largely said, “No thanks,” or “Not now.”
With this in mind, Thomson Reuters offers a contact tracing solution which government agencies, universities, and businesses can use to help locate individuals in the contact chain and manage the resulting database of positive and potentially exposed individuals without the same level of intrusion into an individual’s privacy as consumer smart phone options that trace an individual’s every location.
Thomson Reuters Contact Trace differs from consumer apps currently under development in that it doesn’t rely on cellphone geolocation or other personally invasive technologies to work. Rather, Contact Trace uses a streamlined case management tool combined with Thomson Reuters CLEAR data to help contact tracers quickly locate the phone numbers, addresses, and closest associates of people identified in an COVID-19-positive individual’s contact chain. CLEAR is an investigative platform that pulls location information from a variety of public and proprietary databases.
Combined with this is a powerful case-management system to organize and analyze infection data. Developed by Pondera, a recent Thomson Reuters acquisition, the system’s dashboard was designed in conjunction with public-health experts and is programmed to map contact-tracing activities according to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The data can be used to create visual models of how the virus has spread from individual to individual, and to identify hot spots where additional resources may be necessary.
Technology can help public officials combat the COVID-19 pandemic by providing faster ways to log, manage, and analyze the vast amount of data that effective contact tracing requires. Speed is key to getting in front of any infectious disease — getting to the point where the public feels safe enough to return to work, send their kids to school, and socialize without fear of contagion. That’s a psychological turning point that can only come about if the public trusts that government authorities have truly contained the virus’s pernicious spread.
Indeed, the faster we can identify, locate, and isolate people with COVID-19, the faster the economy can rebound, and the faster the country can recover.