Digital contact tracing apps are in the news as they are becoming essential to help countries get back to running normally after months of lockdown in the Covid-19 pandemic. Many governments are adopting the technology while keeping in mind that it has both pros and cons, to reduce further spread of the virus.

Contact tracing tools and apps have different purposes and features and they are used primarily to assist traditional contact tracing efforts by:

  1. Allowing citizens to self-report cases and contacts, which in turn helps in data collection and reduces the burden on public health staff.
  2. Identifying community contacts by using location data which will help show sites of possible exposure.

Contact tracing tools and apps are differentiated by the purpose they serve.

Case Management Tools

These collect data on cases and contacts to make manual contact tracing more efficient. These tools need many capabilities like the ability to ensure data confidentiality and data security in order to ensure trust, ability to send out manual or automated messages to confirmed cases and contacts and receive inputs from public health authorities. They should also be able to send notifications in multiple formats, reinforcing public health messages as defined by the government or public health authorities and ensuring that they are updated as new information comes in.

Medical Monitoring Tools

These are tools to help doctors and health authorities monitor cases, help people self-report or self-triage if the symptoms are not severe, or stay updated on the next steps during the quarantine. These could be general tools like Zoom or Facetime that are not specifically meant for healthcare but can help patients communicate with doctors from home and not risk venturing out.

There are also some tools that are being developed to help with monitoring, self-triage and risk prediction. One of the latest is the DE-COMP-Triage tool currently deployed a hospital in Massachusetts, USA, which has capabilities to treat only mild and moderate cases. Covid-19 case symptoms and severity can often escalate without warning, and patients are at great risk unless they are moved to intensive care rapidly.  The tool provides a score to determine which patients at the hospital are at highest risk of rapid deterioration and should require transfer to a larger hospital which has intensive care units.

Proximity Tracking Tools

Smartphones can serve as proximity-tracking with Bluetooth and GPS technology to detect exposure to individuals who may have COVID-19. These are already in use by some countries around the world, but it is important to keep in mind that there are certain trade-offs to using this like data security and privacy.

Data and Tech Issues

There problems with the digital contact tracing solutions – there is limited data on how effective these solutions are, as well as the accuracy of the apps and tools. Additionally, some of the solutions are used with Bluetooth technology which is two decades old. Bluetooth technology has its limitations even with location tracking as its ability to detect signal proximity is impaired by factors such as clothing or physical barriers like a chair.

The app can work only if someone downloads it or uses it – and this is not always the case, either due to an individual’s privacy concerns, or even ignorance or unfamiliarity with technology. Other factors that may slow the use of digital contact tracing apps is connectivity, and overloaded network capabilities for organizations using the digital tracing solutions.

Privacy and data security issues are also a big concern – is the data encrypted, where, by which entity, are there any verification methods being used to protect users, are user identities at risk of being hacked and so on.

Contact tracing solutions are the need of the hour. They must be developed with a view to maintaining a balance between privacy and security while ensuring that it adds value and efficiency to traditional methods and can become an important component in the battle against the pandemic.