Fighting a Pandemic With Contact Tracing (Part 1)

(7 minute read)

In Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one of the characters was asked how he became bankrupt? “Two ways,” he said, “gradually at first, then suddenly.” COVID-19 followed a similar logic, spreading gradually at first. Yet, the nature of exponential growth meant that in no time, a slow trickle of cases quickly became a steady current, then a cascade. Now we’re trying to avoid a sudden torrent.

Macrocosm of a Central ‘Top-Down’ Response

Many countries have been caught out by coronavirus. Those responding best have harnessed the power of big data to implement sophisticated responses that start with social distancing.

A global study shows that social distancing, stay-at-home and shelter-in-place public policies are blunting the pandemic’s impact. However, as this first response ‘flattens the curve’, most policy makers continue thinking they have to pick between saving lives and livelihoods. As strongly worded government advice to stay at home escalates to strong-armed orders of virtual house arrest under the threat of non-compliant penalty, havoc is gradually creeping in as people start to tackle the next pandemic, recession.

What’s the solution? Get back to work, as soon and safely possible.

One way for people to restart normality without spiking the curve is to use big data to empower them to trace, test and treat COVID-19. This is a critical next step given the pandemic is expected to last up to 18 months.

China’s surveillance culture became useful in responding to COVID-19 with, for example, thermal scanners installed at train stations and grocers used to detect elevated body temperature (a sign of infection). Coupled with other data, like mobile phone movement which determined if customer’s travel saw them pass through virus hot spots, the Chinese government rolled its Close Contact Detector App so people could determine if they were exposed to someone with the virus and needed testing.

In South Korea, testing is widely automated with product-powered data collection used extensively in mobile and drive-thru testing facilities. Such ingenuity has seen the country rank #1 in how fast it tests citizens.

While there’s a need in every country for a blanket, centralised approach coordinated by governments, there’s also a need for a nuanced, grassroots approach coordinated locally. Ideally, the local solution gives critical information to individuals so they can make smart, informed mobility decisions, locally.

Microcosm of a Community ‘Bottom-Up’ Recovery

Now is not the time to be bull-headed and subscribed to a single ‘top-down’ school of thought. Social isolation merely buys time, but it should not risk being followed by the added cost of further restrained civil rights or worse, martial law, as a one-size stay-at-home policy response risks taxing society too much, possibly in the form of an extended, deep recession. It’s going to become important to learn how live ‘with’ COVID-19.

Talk to local governments, institutions and businesses and you’ll quickly discover a growing appetite for both better local virus surveillance and a safe, planned return to social mobility. Locals understand the lockdown. They also want a plan, post-lockdown, so clusters of people like student populations and building tenants can self-manage their movement and risk.

Contact tracing makes sense. The technique was used exhaustively in the past, from stemming venereal disease in the 40s to limiting the spread of HIV in the 80s. It is also a popular modern-day disease control, too, used widely in the control of many diseases. Combined with social distancing, contact tracing is a powerful tool for controlling COVID-19. Reimagined by technology, contact tracing can help people self-manage risks locally far better than what governments can do nationally.

Can We ‘Crush’ a Flattened Curve?

While ‘flattening’ the curve helps healthcare systems deal with infections, a recent study from Imperial College London showed the strategy increases the risk of rebound, especially as people return to normal mobility.

Flattening the curve is another way of saying slowing the spread, but it comes at a cost.

There’s a hidden cost to flattening a disease curve – a long-tail risk of increased resurgence. As we implement short-term policies like social isolation to dampen the severity, doing so lengthens the pandemic. Cutting the number of severe cases causes less burden on public health systems, but it also increases the chances of resurgence, especially as we return to normal social mobility.

Contact tracing makes it possible to ‘crush’ a flattened curve (i.e. shorten it), mitigating the risk of cluster outbreaks in pockets of society who increase mobility, such as is the case from a return to work. As such, contact tracing is an excellent contingency for companies to actively maximise workplace safety.

The question most organisations and companies need to ask themselves is, who will take ownership of implementing contact tracing? Should human resources or information technology take the lead role in adopting good contact trace practices?

Two ways to ‘crush’ the long-tail risk of flat-curve policies are:

  • Vigilant wide-spread surveillance, monitoring and reporting
  • Maximum public adoption of contact tracing practices

In part 2, I will explore the following topics:

  • Is Contact Tracing Really Worth It?
  • Disease Surveillance Technology
  • Contact Trace Technology
  • Good Datasets
  • Smart Products & Good Data
  • Publishing Data via Good Web Apps
  • Using Web Apps for Disease Control

Go to part 2.