At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private sector organizations were quick to turn to digital technologies to support care and mitigation responses – many of which then began to see unprecedented innovation and development.
Institutions of higher education were among the first to roll out COVID-19 contact tracing initiatives. For example, in March 2020, the University of Virginia launched COVIDWISE, a COVID-19 exposure notification app that alerts the user when they have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. Students were encouraged to download the app on their mobile devices and keep it active at all times. Similar initiatives have taken place in Michigan using wearables, in Texas using proximity detectors, and in Knoxville, Tennessee using proximity trackers to trace and track individuals who may have spent 15 minutes or more near someone who was infected.
Other tech solutions that governments, private corporations, and health organizations have been using to battle the spread of the virus since its onset include tools to aid surveillance and contact tracing similar to the examples above; AI for the rapid identification and tracking of active cases; mobile apps and digital platforms for delivering effective public communications; and comprehensive dashboards and databases for evaluating the efficacy of interventions.
Propel, a health-tech company, Code for America, a non-profit that works to address the widening gap between the public and private sectors in the effective use of technology and design, and countless digital and tech companies from Google and Apple to Avaya and many smaller players also joined the effort. These organizations have worked to develop solutions for improving and simplifying quarantining and self-isolation; simplifying screening and testing; improving clinical management; supporting planning and tracking; and managing medical supplies, resource allocation, and supply chain operations.
Wearable devices, planning apps, and data visualization apps have also been used by a wide range of businesses and organizations, including schools, universities, sports leagues, factories, offices, and even nursing homes to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in different industries and verticals. Even resorts have rushed to adopt them.
Many of these tools will likely remain in use for years to come as industries strive to better understand the factors that influence everything from worker illnesses to resource needs to infrastructure and remote work solutions. Some of the tools and technologies that will continue to have a major role in workplaces, schools, and other public domains are discussed below.
Digital Solutions for the COVID-19 Era
Here are just some of the ways that businesses and governments have leveraged technology to help the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
Infrared/thermal cameras and scanners are used in workplaces, airports, and campuses to rapidly detect individuals who are running a fever. These cameras and scanners can also be used at the entryways of schools and public transportation, and can help identify infection clusters and potential or emerging hot spots. Digital thermometers can be used as well and can be used alongside Artificial Intelligence, mobile phone applications, and web-based toolkits to help screen and identify infected individuals.
Contact Tracing and Tracking
Security camera footage, facial recognition technology, ATM/bank card records, and GPS data from mobile phones and vehicles (location-based tracing/tracking and area monitoring) can provide real-time data and timelines of people’s movements. Mobile phone apps that exchange short-distance Bluetooth signals to identify individuals who were near infected persons can also be used to identify and trace cases.
Wearable tech (i.e. smartwatches, for example) that can collect data on pulse, temperature, and sleep patterns can be used to identify early-onset signs of a viral illness. Building aggregated data of this type can be used to build interactive maps that authorities can then use to predict the likelihood of an outbreak in a particular area. Density and capacity controls that use data from temperature, humidity, and congestion sensors can also be utilized to ensure physical distancing. This data, together with information from smartphones and wearables, can be used to build dashboards and migration maps as well as visual depictions of clusters which can then be used for, for example, border restrictions and quarantine or self-isolation enforcement.
Quarantine and Self-Isolation
Smart apps can help optimize the effectiveness of disease-caused lockdowns, quarantining exposed or infected individuals while simultaneously limiting the restrictions placed on others. Apps can also be used as a clearance certificate or travel pass, helping to limit community transmission while allowing those unaffected to continue life as (relatively) normal. Breaking quarantine protocols (identifiable by breaching a digital, GPS-based fence) can trigger an automatic message to the individual and can even be used to impose a fine.
AI can be used to rapidly diagnose and predict the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. AI and machine learning technologies can differentiate between the type of pneumonia seen with COVID-19 and other lung diseases. This tech can also be used to predict clinical outcomes, assist with telemedicine services and/or virtual care, and enable more efficient service delivery that is highly patient-centric. Tools that can be used here include interactive geospatial maps; visualization tools; data dashboards; and syndromic surveillance which, according to the CDC, provides public health officials with a timely system for detecting, understanding, and monitoring health events to track symptoms of patients in emergency departments (even before a diagnosis is confirmed) to detect unusual levels of illness to determine whether a response is warranted.
Risks and Challenges
Even in high-income countries such as the U.S., there are many susceptible groups – such as those in low-income neighborhoods and/or remote regions – who may not have access to the broadband signals, smartphones, or wearable technology that are critical to the initiatives outlined above. Digital technology responses to health crises must be tailored to the target region in question; furthermore, broadband access requires focused investment in technology and infrastructure from federal, state, and private agencies, that too over the long run.
What can be done?
Right now, at both the local and regional levels, subsidized cellular plans, loaner devices, and subsidized or free WiFi hotspots can provide the connectivity needed to, at least temporarily, address the health and infection disparities we see between connected and disconnected populations. For locations that lack the infrastructure or funds to support cellular and data coverage, applications and devices such as smart IoT or medical IoT devices that do not require continuous network access can be considered.
Decision-makers must keep in mind that technology is just one component of the collective response to COVID-19. What is more important is the relentless focus on the people using the services being provided. Digital technologies have helped many countries flatten the COVID-19 incidence curve, maintain low mortality rates, improve surveillance as well as tracing, testing, and quarantine, and have improved private and government responses to the spread of the disease across the board. It is up to healthcare, business, and government leaders to think about the resources, limitations, needs, and capabilities they have access to when designing and rolling out a screening, tracing, or care management plan for their infected, at-risk, and healthy constituents.
Many of the solutions we’ve seen used over the past year or so will likely remain in use even after the coronavirus is brought to heel, including temperature scanners, travel and contact trackers, apps to chart and understand infection rates (cross-referenced with patient data from wearables), data visualization tools, and automated risk management/incident response systems.
Decision-makers must ensure that the solutions they adopt respect the privacy of users; can be deployed using tech infrastructure already in place; provide data transparency and data access for users and other stakeholders; help keep users and user information safe; and help health and other leaders manage risk and support important business, state, or district systems, as applicable.
Kajeet’s telehealth and connectivity solutions can help get your business or enterprise started. To learn more, contact our team here.