In the footsteps of COVID-19: Contact tracking the virus

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When we talk about fighting the COVID-19 virus, we hear a lot about social distancing, self-isolation and vaccines. The weird thing is that you don’t hear much about another incredibly important tool in the fight against epidemics: contact tracking.

It means detective work. When someone is positive, you ask for the name of anyone they have recently had contact with.

“Contact tracing is really a fundamental part of managing infectious diseases that are contagious,” said Dr. Louise Ivers, professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We try to find people who have been exposed to the disease, and then we give them instructions on what to do. It could pass a test, it could self-isolate at home. We want to make sure that you stay at home and do not inadvertently expose other people. “

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo asked everyone to keep a journal of the people and places they meet: “Every day, I want you to note who you spent time with in person and where you have been. When you find out if you are positive, you should take out your notebook and give it to the Ministry of Health so that it has accurate and up-to-date information. “

And in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has hired 1,000 contact tracers to interview the infected. Partners in Health, a global health organization that led a massive West African contact finder during the 2015 Ebola outbreak, manages the Massachusetts program.

“Everyone’s talking about flattening the curve,” said Dr. Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Partners in Health. “But we also want shrink the curve, for example, reduces the total number of people who fall ill. “

Mukherjee says traditional contact tracing is more than asking, “Who did you hang out with?” It’s also making sure you can handle being sick: “So I say,” Mr. Jones, do you have the capacity to quarantine? And he could say, “No. I am the main breadwinner of this family. What will I do? “Then we wonder if he needs unemployment insurance. Does he need food delivered to the house? “

That’s very cool. But we still have a big problem: you don’t remember every person you have ever known. What about strangers in the grocery store or on the bus behind you?

Well, if you looked at the news, you know this next part: in a historic collaboration, two huge technological rivals are working together.

Apple and Google team up to develop coronavirus tracking technology

“We have come together. And literally, it was a mind fusion, “said Dave Burke, vice president of engineering for Android at Google.

“There are almost too many people volunteering! Laughed Bud Tribble, vice president of software at Apple. “You can’t find anyone who doesn’t want to help with the pandemic.

“The idea here that Google and Apple had, it wasn’t new to us, was, can we use cellphones to help public health agencies do a better job, to scale up their efforts on finding contacts? Said Tribble.

“This is actually a merit for academic institutions in the United States and Europe, and in Asia. Many researchers are pondering this problem, ”said Burke.

Have you heard of Bluetooth? It’s a weak radio signal that allows your phone to send music to your car’s wireless headphones or stereo. Very soon, iPhones and Android phones will continuously stream a Bluetooth beacon – essentially a large number that changes every few minutes – to all phones around 15 feet away.

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CBS News

Meanwhile, your the phone picks up everyone’s tags other phones nearby. He remembers these interactions for 14 days.

Now here’s the cool part: suppose a few days later, someone tests positive for COVID-19. If he wishes, he can report his diagnosis in a public health agency application. At that time, everyone he exposed in the past two weeks receives a notification on their phone and is prompted to request tests or quarantine.

To be clear: no one should participate if they don’t want to. “It is under the control of users; they can turn it on or off, “said Tribble.

“And that’s one of the principles that Google and Apple have aligned with, as, you know, in the first five minutes, maybe the first five seconds,” added Burke.

So if someone accepts the notifications, their personal identifiers – name or location – will not be shared.

And will the data collected one day be hackable, shared with the government or used for marketing purposes? “No,” said Burke. “In fact, we designed the system so that the data was not centralized. You just know that you were close to someone who was infected, that’s all. “

South Korea and Singapore also do digital tracing, but in a much more invasive manner. They make link infections to your identity.

But MIT Internet policy professor Danny Weitzner said the American approach, which is private and optional, will pay off. “If we force people to do this, they will probably try to hide,” he told Pogue. “And if everyone wrapped their cell phone in aluminum foil to try to stop these signals from spreading, then we would have failed.” “

Neither Apple nor Google actually write the apps; instead, it will help state public health agencies create the apps, which are expected to start arriving next month.

One of the most amazing things about this collaboration is that it’s Apple and Google – the main rivals from smartphones to smartphones.

“It is very reassuring to see the world in the same way,” said Burke. “Like, we see the potential of smartphones to help people. “

This historic collaboration between giants faces a few challenges. Maybe few people will choose to activate it. Maybe some people will be informed that they have been exposed, when they are fine, or vice versa. And if you are notified, then what? Millions of people still cannot to have tested or can’t to offer self-isolate.

But Dave Burke and Bud Tribble are optimistic and realistic.

“It’s just an action; it is not a panacea; it’s not the silver bullet, ”said Burke. “We have to do many different things to overcome this pandemic. “

And, as Louise Ivers of Harvard says, we have to try, “This is the biggest public health emergency in our lives, and we have to be ambitious about how we’re going to get out of it.” Because we can’t all stay at home forever. “


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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Publisher: Remington Korper.

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