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Can Phones Help Track Covid-19 Cases?

tracing app on phone
(Photo: Getty Images)

One of the biggest challenges with our global struggle with COVID-19 is knowing when and where to isolate individuals that have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. There's a lot of talk happening about steps necessary to reopen the nation, but what are they? Due to our limited testing capabilities, how can we monitor where outbreaks are happening when so many people are involve? Can phones help track COVID19 cases? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

This particular virus takes almost 2 weeks to go through the course of the illness, but it can also be transmitted up to a week before showing symptoms. And let’s not forget some folks are asymptomatic as well, showing no signs of illness though they are carrying the virus and can transmit it to others. While social distancing methods are clearly working to flatten the epidemic curve, we do have other tools in the epidemiological toolbox to help quicken the transition out of a socially-distanced day-to-day. After all, we can't keep social distancing forever.

One strategy that has been making some recent news is the use of apps on smart phones to help track down people who have been potentially exposed to the virus through contact with a person who has tested positive. This process is known as contact tracing. Usually, it's done manually through contacting as many people that came into contact with an infected individual as possible and getting them to quarantine as soon as possible. However, some countries have begun using phone-based apps that monitor people's daily locations as a way to digitally enhance their manual contact tracing labor.

In Singapore, the TraceTogether app allows their Ministry of Health to determine anyone logged to be near someone who has tested positive using BlueTooth technology; a human contact tracer can then call those contacts and determine appropriate follow-up actions for quarantine and testing. Other countries have tried similar tech to understand the spread of the coronavirus as well.

For this to happen in the US, of course, there will need to be more conversations with the public, app developers, and medical experts as current HIPPA laws and the 4th Amendment will need to be considered before technology like this can become widespread. Since we have limited testing options, apps like these may be a valuable tool in helping experts effectively quarantine people who need it and get us that much closer to allowing for a return to work and leaving the house.

Apple and Google are both working on similar apps for this purpose and will announce more information as development continues.

These are truly unprecedented times and very well could require a new technological approach to helping us fight the spread of this virus. Technology needed to track and identify covid-19 cases? Yeah, there’s an app for that.

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