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What Engineers Need to Know About Contact Tracing

What Engineers Need to Know About Contact Tracing

Disease tracking has proven highly effective against past outbreaks before vaccines. Technology now doubles that effectiveness.

Have you ever thought of becoming a disease detective tracking down COVID-19 infections? What’s involved and what are the benefits? What part does technology play? Before answering these questions, let’s start with the basics.

The main task of the disease gumshoe is contact tracing, i.e., identifying all persons who may have come into contact with an infected person. By tracing the contacts of infected individuals, testing them for infection, treating the infected and tracing their contacts in turn, public tracers aim to significantly reduce infections in a population.

Contact tracing is nothing new. It has been a vitally important part of communicable disease control for decades. The eradication of smallpox, for example, was achieved not by universal immunization but by exhaustive contact tracing to find all infected persons. More recently, contact tracing has been credited with helping stop the SARS epidemic in 2004.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough COVID-19 trackers. According to a recent bipartisan estimate, over 180,000 contact tracers are needed around the country. Other estimates place the need between 100,000 to 300,000.

How does one get trained as a disease tracker? Not surprisingly, it helps to have experience in the public health and care markets. Fluency in multiple languages is also a plus. Regardless of one’s background, training exists to become a contact tracer. The CDC provides a list of educational training plus a list of paid part-time and full-time job postings.

Contact tracing basics. (Image Source: Contact Tracing Wikimedia CFCF)

Technology Plays Major Monitoring Role

Several major universities have partnered with the government and industry to create contact tracing technologies. One such partnership is called PACT: Private Automated Contact Tracing. The mission of PACT is to develop technology that enhances the reach and effectiveness of existing contact tracing strategies through the use of personal digital communication devices while preserving privacy concerns.

As a part of PACT, MIT has developed a system for identifying people at risk of infecting COVID-19 by using the Bluetooth signals from cell phones. This technology utilizes an open, privacy-preserving protocol to notify individuals of potential contacts without revealing any private information to other individuals, the government, health care providers, or telecommunication carriers.

Electronic companies are also helping with tracing technology. For example, Apple and Google are working together to develop new contact tracing technology using smartphones and Bluetooth technologies. Last month, the tech giants jointly announced they are collaborating on an API and a platform that will work across both iOS and Android smartphones to help track COVID-19 exposures and warn people who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus behind the disease.

“Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a tweet announcing the new development. “We’re working with @sundarpichai [and] @Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency [and] consent.”

The new API will be followed by a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform. The API will facilitate interoperability between various public health apps on iOS and Android. The Bluetooth tracing platform will be opt-in and will provide a more robust solution that allows people to be notified if they’ve been potentially exposed to COVID-19.

But there are limitations to the new technology. Users would have to opt-in and people without smartphones would not get notified.

Not all contact tracing tech relies on Bluetooth. For example, IoT specialist Kerlink has partnered with the data management company Microshare to create a system that traces contacts proximity in the workplace to help fight the spread of Covid-19. The two companies have jointly used their experience in indoor asset tracking within facilities and around ring-fenced properties to deliver a contact-tracing solution based on LoRaWAN gateways. The LoRaWAN specification is a Low Power, Wide Area Network (LPWAN) wireless telecommunication protocol design. Compared to WiFi and Bluetooth, an LPWAN is known for its ability to transmit small data packets over incredible, long-range distances using the unlicensed spectrum.

In the end, contact tracing has proven highly successful in greatly mitigating the disastrous effects of past diseases. It can work equally well with COVID-19, but only if the public is willing to participate. Unfortunately, some American’s have a negative attitude toward the government’s preventative measures, which will pose serious challenges for efforts to track and contain coronavirus cases.

Google Bluetooth platform. (Image source: Google, Apple)

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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