Question Your World: Can Our Phones Help Track COVID-19 Cases?

Posted: April 22, 2020

One of the biggest challenges with our global struggle with COVID-19 is knowing when and where to isolate individuals who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. There's a lot of talk about the steps necessary to reopen the nation, but what are they? Due to our limited testing capabilities, how can we monitor where outbreaks are happening when so many people are involved? Can our phones help track COVID-19 cases? 

This particular virus takes almost two weeks to run its the course, but it can also be transmitted up to a week before symptoms show. And let’s not forget some folks are asymptomatic as well, showing no signs of illness though they are carrying the virus and can transmit it to others. While social distancing methods are clearly working to flatten the epidemic curve, we do have other tools in the epidemiological toolbox to help quicken the transition out of a socially-distanced day-to-day world. After all, we can't keep social distancing forever.  

One strategy that has been making some recent news is the use of apps on smart phones to help track people who have been potentially exposed to the virus through contact with a person who has tested positive. This process is known as contact tracing. Usually, it's done manually by contacting as many people as possible who came into contact with an infected individual and getting them into quarantine as soon as possible. However, some countries have begun using phone-based apps that monitor people's daily locations as a way to digitally enhance their manual contact-tracing labor.

In Singapore, the TraceTogether app allows their Ministry of Health to use BlueTooth technology to determine if anyone was logged as near someone who has tested positive; a human contact tracer can then call those contacts and determine appropriate follow-up actions for quarantine and testing. Other countries have tried similar tech to understand the spread of the coronavirus as well. 

For this to happen in the US, of course, there will need to be more conversations with the public, app developers, and medical experts. Current HIPPA laws and the 4th Amendment will need to be considered before technology like this can become widespread. Since we have limited testing options, apps like these may be a valuable tool in helping experts effectively quarantine people

Apple and Google are both working on similar apps for this purpose and will announce more information as development continues. 

These are truly unprecedented times and very well could require a new technological approach to helping us fight the spread of this virus. Technology needed to track and identify covid-19 cases? Yeah, there’s an app for that. 

August 4, 2020 update: this week, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) released COVIDWISE, a new exposure notification app. COVIDWISE facilitates digital contact tracing in response to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Learn more about how the app works, read privacy FAQs and dowload the app at