Contact tracing is a critical tool that has been used for decades to help slow the transmission of infectious diseases such as SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2014. One of our August blog posts, Using Contact Tracing to Slow the Spread of COVID-19, examined how this public health strategy could help in the current pandemic. However, while the practice can be effective, there have been several factors preventing a large-scale initiative in the U.S. 

One issue is that there are not enough contact tracers available to do the much needed labor-intensive, manual work. Medix is addressing this concern by working to recruit and train workers in these roles. Another is that many states do not have adequate tracing capabilities to address a sudden rise in cases. According to data from Test & Trace, updated on September 10, 2020, only nine states are fully prepared with enough tracers and rapid testing capabilities, and just seven states are planning to hire enough tracers to meet rising demand. Finally, contacting people who have either tested positive or been exposed can be extremely difficult. Many tracers struggle to reach people by phone, and when they do, they are often met with resistance, typically because of privacy concerns.

Technology May Help Supplement Manual Contact Tracing

One potential solution is introducing digital contact tracing tools. While public health experts typically prefer manual contact tracing, they also acknowledge that technology can play a role in making the overall process more efficient. In fact, a recent Lancet study found that because of “uncertainties about the effectiveness of automated contact-tracing systems, manual contact tracing on a large scale is likely to be required to control COVID-19.” It also went on to say that the manual process could be supported by digital solutions. 

There are two key types of technology used in contact tracing, case management and proximity tracing/exposure notification tools. This guide from the Center for Disease Control provides more detail but essentially case management tools make manual contact tracing more efficient by streamlining data capture and integrating management tools. Proximity tracing/exposure notification apps use GPS or Bluetooth technologies to notify smartphone owners of possible exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

In both cases, technology companies are racing to develop tools for everything from mapping the route a COVID-19 employee traveled in an office to monitoring physical distancing using apps or bracelets. As with all technologies, evaluating each app or solution will be critical to finding the right one. 

Potential Barriers to Adoption of Digital Tools

In order to be effective, these solutions need a coordinated response. However, the decentralization of public health measures during the pandemic has left states and local governments to grapple with which technologies to use, if any. There also has been widely varying levels of support for contact tracing on the whole, let alone digital tools, making it difficult to get the overwhelming public buy-in needed for success. 

Another concern is finding the right balance between individual privacy and public health safety. Given the multiple security concerns from either hackers accessing a database or private information being sold to third parties, people have every reason to be wary. Additionally, employees may be concerned that employers will use the data collected for discriminatory profiling.

The apps can also be inaccurate, either due to technical glitches or employees using them incorrectly. However, when combined with manual tracing, they can still help provide a more robust picture of an employee’s movement and contacts throughout the day.

What Can Companies Do to Help Integrate Digital Contact Tracing Tools 

To help mitigate these concerns, companies need to work with employees on the value of contact tracing and how technology can be of assistance. A recent survey from Kronos Incorporated conducted by The Harris Poll found nearly nine in 10 U.S. employees (86 percent) believe their employer has an “obligation” to notify employees who may have been in contact with a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19. This indicates that despite privacy and other concerns, employees are prioritizing public health at work. 

Business leaders can help maintain that good will by following a few best practices:

  • Conduct due diligence to assess the best digital contact tracing tools for the company and its employees. The World Health Organization has issued some guiding principles that may be helpful.
  • Be transparent in your approach to contact tracing, communicate how the process works to employees and explain how digital tools complement the process.
  • Update privacy policies to make clear the type of data being collected, how it will be used and when it will be deleted from the system.  
  • Reassure employees that all identifying data is only accessible to public health practitioners and that the company has implemented strict privacy protections.
  • Understand that younger generations may be more comfortable with various forms of contact tracing, including digital, than other groups so work with all employees to build up trust- and comfort-levels.
  • Request that all groups participate in the contact tracing program, as opposed to selecting high-risk employees, to remain in compliance with anti-discrimination laws. 

Ultimately, manual contact tracing and disease prevention education are the two best approaches for mitigating the impact of COVID-19 and keeping workers safe. Digital tools can assist when and where it makes sense but should not be used to replace tried-and-true methods. To learn more about contact tracing and the role of digital tools, please reach out to your Medix representative or click here for the Medix team email.