As some states take steps to partially re-open their economies, public health officials and local governments are trying to aggressively ramp up contact tracing to track the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, Axios' Kim Hart and Margaret Harding McGill report.
Why it matters: Identifying who has come in contact with people infected with the disease is critical to isolating the coronavirus while also allowing some semblance of daily life to resume.
Between the lines: State and city budgets are being hammered by the economic fallout of COVID-19, making it harder to find the resources to hire and train people to contact trace or acquire needed technologies.
- Some governments are recruiting volunteers, retirees and students to do the work. But the sheer number of people needed — at least 100,ooo across the U.S., per Johns Hopkins — and the open-ended duration of the work makes that a very daunting task.
State and county public health officials are ramping up tracing efforts now that testing availability is improving — since tracing only works with widespread testing.
What's happening: Other countries are relying on tech to varying degrees to augment contact tracing.
- Singapore, Australia and Iceland have all launched contact-tracing apps. South Korea used phone GPS records, credit card transactions and closed-circuit television to augment patient interviews for its contact tracing effort.
In the U.S., a joint effort from Google and Apple will most likely form the basis of any widespread, tech-enabled contact tracing.
- The two companies are sharing an early version of what they're calling COVID-19 exposure notification technology with certain developers working with public health authorities. Apple and Google want to release the first phase of the project, which will enable users to opt in to Bluetooth-based contact tracing, by mid-May.
- MIT researchers, who launched a project to perform private automated contact tracing, are using their expertise with radar to help figure out how Bluetooth can show the distance between users.
- Marc Zissman, associate head of the Cyber Security and Information Sciences Division at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, said Google and Apple's effort appears to be incorporating the privacy principles researchers have called for, including sending randomized data that is not personally identifiable.
- "Our best guess is that when Google and Apple release this, this is going to be what it is," Zissman said.
The success of the effort will depend on widespread adoption of the technology so people will be notified when they come in contact with someone who tests positive.
What to watch: Zissman said MIT researchers will reverse-engineer the Google/Apple programs to ensure they are following the privacy protocols, and also expect pilot testing in limited settings like hospitals or universities before states begin implementing.
- It may also take a public service campaign featuring trusted voices to encourage Americans to opt in.
The bottom line: "There's a lot of doubts," said Josh Michaud, associate director for Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "One, that people's privacy concerns can be addressed sufficiently, and two, that enough people would download the app to make it helpful and actually provide the service it's supposed to provide."