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Contact tracing may not stem COVID-19 pandemic


We are all susceptible to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Between historic job losses and widespread health and safety fears, the situation calls upon all of our creative resources and innovative abilities to come up with responses that will benefit the public good. Tactics such as mandatory face masks in public spaces and the closures of shops, restaurants, and independent businesses are met with controversy, suspicion, and disbelief.

Contact tracing is no different. A method meant to reduce the spread of the virus as scientists search for a vaccine, contact tracing faces its own set of issues. New technologies are being put to the task, but will they work?

Contact tracing before smartphones

Although the phrase may seem new to many, contact tracing has been used since long before coronavirus. From the bubonic plague of England in the 1300’s to tracking the spread of AIDS since the 1980’s, contact tracing has proven to be a valuable method of stemming the spread of epidemics.

Contact tracing refers to the tracking of people who might have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for a disease—and therefore who might be at risk. It is used to limit exposure and prevent interactions that could prove to be fatal. The method relies upon personal accounts of possible interactions that are shared with “disease detectives” who then process and analyze the information to inform potentially at-risk people of their status.

The coronavirus presents particular difficulties in employing this technique. Since symptoms are often invisible for several days after contracting the virus, people who test positive may not be able to accurately recall just exactly how many people they have interacted with—and exactly how far the virus might have spread. And because the virus spreads exponentially, the government will need to hire a massive task force of healthcare professionals to tackle the increasing spread.

The Google and Apple app

Google and Apple have joined forces to develop a new contact tracing app that utilizes bluetooth technology. As long as you have your bluetooth turned on, anytime you cross paths with someone who also has the app and has bluetooth activated, your phone will automatically log the interaction.

If one of you tests positive for the disease, you update your status in the app. Your phone sends an anonymized ID to a central database, and from there the app will do contact mapping and risk analysis. If you have unknowingly crossed paths with someone who has the disease, the app will send you an alert.

Although it is called an app, the project is actually an OS update for iOS and Android that will allow healthcare agencies to more easily deploy their own contact tracing apps. Countries around the world have agreed to adopt this background framework for digital contact tracing, praising Apple and Google’s advanced anonymizing processes, which should guarantee users’ privacy.

Insurmountable Challenges?

The new app faces a plethora of problems. American citizens who are concerned about privacy rights are unlikely to voluntarily use an app that will silently monitor and surveil them. But if the app is to function correctly, it will rely upon a critical mass of users to collect accurate data. Even one or two cases that escape the notice can spread the virus widely.

Besides the privacy concerns, using the app as the primary method of national contact tracing also fails to account for the percentage of the population who do not have smartphones, and therefore cannot participate in the process. In Los Angeles, we have the benefit of strong internet coverage, but for those who live in internet dead zones, the app may not function correctly. Singapore’s TraceTogether contact tracing app was widely heralded as the one to copy, but proved ineffectual after statistics emerged that revealed only 20 percent of the population were using the app, as opposed to the 80 percent majority needed to make it work.

Hong Kong has been able to severely limit the virus’s spread. A recent LA Times article reported only four deaths from among the population of 7.5 million people, versus the staggering death toll in Los Angeles County which, at press time, numbered nearly 2,700 and counting. But Hong Kong took decisive actions, shutting down their city as early as February and enacting contact tracing months ago. It is possible that the U.S. has waited too long to begin providing adequate testing and therefore our death rates continue to rise.

Even with these newly developed apps, contact tracers will be playing a catch up game.

If digital contact tracing is to be the key solution to slowing this trend, then the public debate comes down to privacy versus efficacy. If people will not use the app of their own accord—ensuring the failure of this technology—then the next step may be mandatory participation. Many will view this as an abuse of their civil liberties, and we may see the start of a bitter fight against this new form of “national surveillance.”