Using technology in a pandemic

As governments worldwide seek ways to safely manage the flow of people across borders, it has become clear that medical innovation and technology will play a vital role. The pandemic has prompted a range of efforts to develop and adapt technology to help public health systems control the spread of the disease, from mobile apps to thermal imaging cameras. 

With more than 17 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide through the end of July, measures such as quarantining, social distancing, wearing masks, contact tracing and testing remain the best defence against the virus until a vaccine is widely available. In the meantime, authorities continue to look to new technology to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

Contact tracing apps 

Contact tracing is the process of gathering information on an individual’s encounters with others and managing who they have been exposed to, preventing onward transmission of the disease. Contact tracing can be performed manually by retracing a person’s steps, but the use of mobile apps helps the process by automatically identifying and notifying individuals they have been in contact with. 

Current technology leaders, like Apple, Google and Fitbit, have implemented strategies in their existing technology that help track the virus, with Apple and Google partnering to create "Exposure Notification" to help facilitate digital contact tracing. 

As countries reopen their borders, they are looking to technology providers to assist in providing contact tracing apps. Countries such as Australia, China, France, Germany and New Zealand have encouraged the use of digital apps; however, user adoption of technology has varied, limiting the effectiveness of the apps. 

Rapid testing 

Testing is a vital part of suppression measures, but the length of time taken to get a result has been an issue around the world. Rapid diagnostic tests are medical tests that detect antigens (proteins) produced by the disease from a sample taken in the respiratory tract. These tests generate a signal of detection within 30 minutes, speeding the process by two days.  

Since many countries now require negative test results prior to travel, the issue is providing the results within the appropriate time frame. New technology is making rapid diagnostic tests more widely available. In Luxembourg, Ecolog has opened 17 testing stations with a capacity of 20,000 tests per day. In the United Arab Emirates, Emirates Airlines became the first airline to conduct rapid testing for passengers pre-boarding.

Physical infrastructure 

To allow access to buildings, institutions are adding physical infrastructure to help screen individuals and clean high-touch areas to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These include thermal cameras and scanners, ultraviolet technology and sanitiser stations.  

Non-contact thermal scanners and cameras indicate the slightest rise in body temperature, as even asymptomatic people have small increases.  

Although fever reading is efficient for mass-screening and identifying one possible symptom of COVID-19, it has its flaws. A rise in body temperature can be caused by other factors like the outside weather, recent exercise, eating spicy foods and other health-related reasons. High body temperatures can also be hidden by medicines like aspirin and acetaminophen.

Constant monitoring of body vitals is a better way to understand and prevent the spread of any virus. Kinsa Inc. is a smart thermometer company that tracks data on symptoms and location of readings to track the spread of when and where people fall ill-using contact thermometers linked with smartphone applications. 

Wearable technology 

Wearable technology performs a number of actions such as tracking daily steps and distance walked and health monitoring. Best known are the Apple Watch and Fitbit, which both contain sensors that can read vitals such as heart rate and breathing.

Tech companies are now working out how these capabilities can be implemented to monitor for potential symptoms of COVID-19 and further prevent the spread of the virus. Among them is BioIntelliSense, the manufacturer of the BioButtons that the Cayman Islands Government is incorporating into its borders reopening protocols to continuously monitor the wearer’s heart rate, respiratory rate and skin temperature.  

Given the limitations of polymerase chain reaction — or PCR — testing, which provides only a snapshot in time in the early days of incubation, continuous health monitoring provides an additional layer to established suppression measures.

Data analytics 

Using technology to gather and analyse data is critical in understanding and controlling the spread of the virus. COVID-19 symptom tracker apps help collect big data and spot possible COVID-19 outbreaks. Kinsa Inc. gathers data to construct a thermal map of potential outbreaks and provides insight on the virus's spread.  

Despite the volume of data, challenges still arise on the accuracy of predictions. The COVID-19 pandemic is an entirely new dilemma and no one can be sure what will happen or how to respond.

Just one component 

Even though technology gives a helping hand to prevent further spread of the disease, it is only one component. Regulations on social distancing, testing pre- and post-arrival, isolation and mask-wearing are essential to the safe reopening of travel across borders. Border management, testing capacity and how to handle a possible rise in cases are also key considerations for governments.

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This article appears in print in the August 2020 edition of Camana Bay Times.

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