Proximity Tracing & You: What to Expect as the World Returns to Work

Proximity Tracing & You: What to Expect as the World Returns to Work

Andrew Douthwaite

June 11, 2020

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on our society, affecting our health, our work, and our overall well-being. Proximity tracing aims to help track the spread of this virus and use this information to limit future infections.

What is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing, also called proximity tracing, is, at its core, detective work. Trained medical professionals interview individuals who have contracted a contagious disease to determine who they have recently been in contact with.
This information is used to inform individuals who may have been exposed so they can take steps to prevent the disease from spreading further. In some cases, such as COVID-19, this involves going into isolation. Contact tracing also provides medical professionals with information on how different diseases are spread, which they can use to help the general population flatten the curve using measures such as social distancing.
Contract tracing has been successfully used before to help curb infection rates during the 2003 SARS outbreak and the Ebola outbreak of 2014. It has also been used to track other diseases such as tuberculosis.

Why Contact Tracing Apps Are So Important

Though medical professionals have been using contact tracing for years, COVID-19 has put a spotlight on this important medical investigative tool. To help flatten the curve, Apple and Google are working together to create a cross-compatible contact tracing app.
An app would allow contact tracing to happen automatically, which means that medical professionals would no longer need to conduct lengthy interviews and contact each potentially infected individual.
This app, and other apps like it, trace contact automatically by recording when two people are close enough to one another for a long enough period of time that there is a significant risk a contagion (such as COVID-19) could pass from one person to the other.
This information is securely stored for a set period and used to alert individuals if they were in close contact with someone who has now tested positive so they can take appropriate steps.

Mitigating Potential Privacy Concerns

Tracking people, even if it is for the benefit of public health, raises privacy concerns. To protect user identities, these apps don’t rely on GPS data or other personal information and don’t reveal any identifying details. Instead, the app simply tells the user that they have had contact recently with someone who has now tested positive and should take precautions such as getting tested and self-isolating.

How Contact Tracing Apps Work

The apps work like this: once you download the app (and ensure your Bluetooth is turned on), the phone sends out a message with pseudorandom gibberish every few minutes. This information is picked up by other phones nearby that also have the same app or a compatible app installed. The pseudorandom nature of these messages means they don’t use GPS and don’t contain any personal information that could be used to identify the user specifically.
So, how can the app trace contact if it doesn’t have access to any identifying details or GPS information? The phone both sends out messages and listens for messages from nearby phones. If 2 phones with the same app, or compatible apps, stay close to each other long enough for possible transmission to occur they exchange their respective strings of gibberish.
Each phone then remembers all of the messages it sent and received within a set period (such as 2 weeks). Then, if one user gets sick and tests positive for COVID-19, they can tell their phone to check it’s send and received messages against a hospital or other health authority database.
The database then uploads and stores all of the gibberish messages from the infected person’s phone. Other users’ phones check their own received messages periodically against this database. If the same gibberish message is found in both the database and a user’s list of received messages, then the app knows the user may have been exposed to the virus. The app then alerts the user, who can then self-quarantine to prevent further spread.

What if Not Everyone Has the App?

The more people who use compatible tracing apps, the better since that means more potentially infected but asymptomatic people can be warned and self isolate before infecting others.
Infectious disease epidemiologist Cristophe Fraser and his colleagues at the University of Oxford have predicted how using an app could help stem the spread of the virus. Their model found that if about 56% of the population (or about 80% of all smartphone users) used either the same app or compatible apps the rate of infection would go from a reproduction number (R0) of 3 (roughly where it was at the beginning of the epidemic) to less than 1 (which is well below the necessary threshold for containing the outbreak).
The Oxford team’s model is based on several assumptions that need to be taken into account:

  • It ignores the use of widespread social distancing rules, which have had a large hand in reducing infections even without contact tracing.
  • It assumes that individuals over 70 continue to self-isolate, severely limiting their chances of getting infected or spreading the disease.
  • It assumes that traditional contact tracing measures are not being used in tandem with the app.

However, if even a few users download compatible tracing apps, infection rates go down. And as usage rates increase, infection rates will decrease.

What Should I Expect When I Return to Work?

Post COVID-19 workplaces will likely look very different from what we are used to, and will likely adopt many of the safety measures essential businesses have already put in place.
Contact tracing will likely become standard practice, with organizations either insisting their employees either use approved contact tracing apps or other methods of electronic contact tracing and share the collected data with their employer.
Good contact tracing methods will be valuable both to track the potential spread of infection between employees as well as the spread of infection from employees to visitors or customers or vice versa.

Working from Home Becomes the Norm

Many organizations will rethink the need for employees to come to the office every day. They may begin by asking employees to self-isolate at home for 14 days if they have had contact with an infected person within the last 2 weeks or have recently traveled outside the country.
Companies may also encourage employees to work from home whenever possible. This will reduce the number of people in an individual workplace on any given day and will likely reduce the demand for office space.

Increased Safety Measures

Temperature checks at the beginning of shifts will likely become the norm, and individuals with fevers will likely be sent home or otherwise denied entry to the building. Organizations that work with the public, such as retail stores, may also prohibit customers from entering if they have a fever.
Employees may also be required to wear PPE (such as facemasks) either at all times or when social distancing isn’t possible (such as when riding the elevator). Employers will have to either provide workers with PPE or set guidelines to ensure that the PPE employees bring from home offers adequate protection.

Facilitating Social Distancing

Social distancing is likely here to stay. Workplaces may adopt electronic social distancing practices, like the social distancing necklaces used by one Italian museum. Necklaces, bracelets, lanyards, or other wearable social distancing devices will buzz, flash, or emit a noise when 2 wearers get too close to one another.
How we move about our workplaces will also likely change as employers may also choose to designate set entrances and exits and make hallways one way to better facilitate social distancing.

Rethinking the 9 to 5 Workday

In workplaces where working from home isn’t an option, or isn’t an option for everyone, employers will likely choose to stagger shifts to limit the number of individuals in the workplace at one time.

Changing Workplace Layouts

What the workplace looks like will also change. Employers may rearrange workstations to ensure their workers can safely practice social distancing. This will likely include ensuring workers remain 6 feet apart, moving away from open-plan offices, and potentially limiting the number of employees in the building at one time.
Common areas, such as lunchrooms, will likely be reimagined or closed entirely. Spacing tables farther apart, staggering breaks, and increased cleaning between breaks will all likely be required to ensure these common areas can be appropriately sanitized, and employees can sufficiently social distance.
Workplaces in the post-COVID-19 era will likely look very different than they did just a few short months ago. Even once a vaccine is developed and made widely available, how we trace and fight disease will be forever changed as apps make it easier than ever to trace contact between infected individuals and potentially infected people.

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