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The Challenges Of Integrating Emerging Technologies Into Covid-19 Contact Tracing Activities!

COVID-19

In recent years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has drawn significant research ground in a wide variety of fields such as academic, industrial disciplines and especially in healthcare. The IoT innovation is revolutionizing modern healthcare systems combining technological, commercial, and social prospects. It is developing healthcare sectors from conventional to more personalized healthcare solutions where patients can be diagnosed, carefully monitored, and treated more efficiently. 

The increase in the use of mobile technology and smart devices in the healthcare sector has resulted in a significant innovative impact on the world. Potential development of new smart and powerful devices for monitoring of individuals’ health are being developed by product engineering and software development companies and health experts are taking advantage of these technologies. 

These IoT- implemented technology allows integrating physical devices capable of connecting to the Internet and provides real-time health status of the patients to doctors. It can also provide a platform that allows public health agencies to access the data for monitoring COVID-19 pandemic.

What Is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is an important control measure to break chains of COVID-19 person-to-person transmission. Since COVID-19 symptoms are nonspecific, asymptomatic and sometimes undetected in many people, testing alone does not stop the spread but requires contact tracing to speed the discovery of an affected person’s contacts to prevent further transmission. 

To effectively enhance contact tracing, the World Health Organization recommends a combination of measures such as rapid diagnosis and immediate isolation of cases, rigorous tracking and precautionary self-isolation of recently exposed close-contacts. To prevent onward transmission, the person who tests positive for COVID-19 is either quarantined or self-isolated. After that, the person’s close contacts are followed up and advised to go into precautionary self-isolation, a process which is prominently known as contact tracing, and its purpose is to prevent possible transmission chains. 

Contact tracing as a control measure identifies exposed contact-persons that need 14 days of precautionary self-isolation. A close contact or contact-person is a person who had face-to-face contact with an infected person or confirmed case. Implementation of contact tracing activities requires collective efforts from the health workers, community, researchers, telecommunication companies and government authorities.

Currently, contact tracing activities rely on the memory of COVID-19 infected person to provide a list of contact-persons to the healthcare professionals or COVID-19 response team. However, there have been instances when the infected person cannot remember his/her close contact-persons and does not have contact details of the contact-persons. For example, the infected person might have had contact with unknown persons in the retail outlets which might be difficult to trace contacts. In cases like this, technology-based contact tracing applications can facilitate and automate the process, enabling contact tracers to inform users who a COVID-19 victim’s contact persons are. This can be enabled by using global positioning system (GPS), Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology Bluetooth technology, Social graph, network-based API, mobile tracking data, card transaction data, and system physical address.

How Contact Tracing Can Be Integrated With Emerging Technologies?

Emerging technologies are highly interlinked and could be utilized for tracing and tracking COVID-19 pandemic. With the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in affected countries, the integration of emerging technologies into contact tracing activities is inevitable. The integration of COVID-19 contact tracing activities has been implemented by several countries such as South Korea, Germany, Singapore etc. These countries use several devices communicating together through Bluetooth technology, Global Positioning System (GPS), wireless technology, mobile phone applications, wearable technology and sensors for tracking COVID-19 patients. 

For instance, Germany implemented a contact tracing application that executes on smartwatches and screens the user for COVID-19 using pulse, temperature, and sleep pattern. The data from the contact tracing application is mapped to the country’s interactive map for further analysis and allocation of resources. Singapore implemented a Bluetooth-based mobile phone application, to boost COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. The mobile application works by pushing notifications and location permissions to devices in close-proximity as two meters apart and sharing information. This mobile application can store data for up to 21 days and transfer it to the national health information systems.

 

Challenges Of Integrating Emerging Technologies Into Covid-19 Contact Tracing Activities

While emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, IoT services, geographical information systems and mobile technology have been recognized as paramount technologies in developing COVID-19 contact tracing apps, their adoption in COVID-19 contact tracing is limited owing to the following challenges:

Asymptomatic Individuals

Asymptomatic individuals transmit COVID-19 though they do not possess symptoms of the disease. This poses infection and control challenges yet their contribution is not well-known. This means contact tracing emphasizing more on close contacts is unlikely to be sufficient unless clinical testing is done. In such cases, contact tracing becomes less effective especially when dealing with asymptomatic individuals since symptom checkers and apps rely on the pulse, temperature, and sleeping patterns.

Surfaced Significant Technical Limitations

Setting-up contact tracing apps require highly skilled manpower to develop, deploy, configure, and maintain the system. Integration of blockchain API, BlueTrace protocol and other security algorithms requires experts to ensure that data is secured and encrypted. Such experts are scarce in many developing or undeveloped countries in many parts of the world.

Lack Of Information And Communication Technology (Ict) Infrastructure And Electronic Health Policy

Integration of emerging technologies into health systems is still nascent in some countries. There are no guidelines or policy on electronic data protection in COVID-19 pandemic policy. Countries like Chad and the Central African Republic with poor ICT infrastructure find it hard to deploy limited resources toward technological innovation as part of their COVID-19 pandemic response plan. Also, setting-up health information systems as a response to pandemics including national health information systems, electronic health records and telemedicine require an ethical framework for digital epidemiology and technological interventions to boost trust and expedite the adoption of emerging technologies in health systems.

Socio-economic Inequalities

Integrating technology into contact tracing activities requires internet connection and computing devices which can be expensive. Due to the digital divide and health-care disparities especially in developing counties, integration of emerging technologies into contact tracing might be threatened. Even in developed countries, high-risk groups might not have full access to broadband signals, smartphones, or wearable technology such as smartwatches. To address this challenge, network service providers together with the affected government can zero rate COVID-19 contact tracing applications or reduce the cost of internet data or develop unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) based contact tracing applications that do not require internet access. USSD-based contact tracing apps can also assist people living in underdeveloped rural areas to disseminate COVID-19 information and connect with health workers instead of excluding them.

Deactivation Of Mobile Devices’ WIFI, GPS Services.

The existing contact tracing apps rely on Bluetooth protocols, WIFI and GPS technology to monitor movements of infected people and contact-persons. These technologies facilitate location-based services which can be interrupted by the proximity, heterogeneity of protocols, and spoofing of GPS signal. Since people have rights to configure their mobile devices ‘connection settings, contact tracing apps might fail to track COVID-19 patients and contact-persons if they deactivate WIFI and GPS connection 

Conclusion

Integrating emerging technologies into COVID-19 contact tracing is seen as a viable option that policymakers, health practitioners and IT technocrats need to seriously consider in mitigating the spread of coronavirus. Further research is also required on how best to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the utilisation of emerging technologies in contact tracing while observing the security and privacy of people in fighting COVID-19 pandemic.

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