January 2021 | Steven Walker
On January 20, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States. We passed the 400,000 death mark a little over a year later, with officials warning we will likely reach 500,000 deaths by the end of February. Despite the highly unusual rapid development of multiple vaccines, we still find ourselves in the midst of the deadliest phase of the pandemic to date. That’s why now, more than ever, it is important that you and your organization focus on preventing the spread of the virus through precise and efficient contract tracing.
The most common method of contact tracing today is telephone interviews, where a contact tracer asks the COVID-positive patient who they had any contact with over their infectious period. This outdated method has contributed to the United States leading the world in deaths and cases by notable margins: nearly twice as many deaths (441,000) as the next country (Brazil: 225,000), and over twice as many cases (26.2M) as the next country (India: 10.8M). Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the United States have been hindered by our country’s outdated contact tracing techniques, when more efficient and effective technological alternatives are readily and easily available.
Contact tracing is an essential tool in our attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as symptoms do not appear for anywhere between 2-14 days, with an average around 5-6 days. During this time, an asymptomatic COVID patient is unwittingly exposing people around them to the deadly virus. This period of asymptomatic contact is the primary driver of COVID transmission, with as much as 56% of transmissions occurring before the seed patient develops symptoms. If contact tracing was successful in reaching all of a person’s contacts and all of those contacts then quarantined themselves, virus transmissions would decrease significantly. However, this has not been the case in the United States. John Oeltmann, the head of contact tracing assessment at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), conducted a study of two counties in North Carolina to determine resident responsiveness to contact tracing calls. He found that during a time of high transmission in the two counties, 25% and 48% of contacts were not reached. Of the contacts who were reached, 35% and 48% respectively reported they had “no contacts”. In Oeltmann’s conclusion he states that, “Improved timeliness of contact tracing, community engagement, and community-wide mitigation are needed to interrupt SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”
There are many factors that can contribute to low response rates to contact tracing calls. For one, people are normally wary of picking up calls from unknown numbers, citing concerns of scammers and unwanted cold calls. Second, after conflicting rhetoric from government leaders during the early stages of the pandemic, some people may be skeptical of the science behind virus transmission, our public health institutions, and the vital necessity of contact tracing. Finally, people may be hesitant to name their friends and associates as contacts, wanting to avoid the potential social repercussions of requiring their contacts to quarantine. All of these factors have resulted in the failure of contact tracing in the United States and have also contributed to this harsh reality: the world’s premier superpower is being upstaged in handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the rest of the developed world.
It is clear that we need to make a change in how we deal with this issue, and the best way to do this would be to take advantage of our technological capabilities. That’s why Access Strategy Partners Inc is introducing btwTAG, a product that could completely upend our inefficient contact tracing systems. btwTAG is a contact tracing technology that uses an independent frequency to record data when two tags are in close contact with each other. When implemented in a company or other work setting, a college or school campus, a hospital or healthcare facility or other locations, all individuals on site would wear the TAGs, and all contact data would be sent directly to a dashboard that can be independently managed and customized. btwTAG has also developed “gate tags” that can be placed near entrances of specific areas and can alert the institution when a room has exceeded its safe capacity.
Technologies like the btwTAG are a great way to help tackle many of the issues that currently plague our contact tracing systems. They completely eliminate any variability on who is or is not reported as a close contact, as the data is stored autonomously while the TAG wearer is going about their day. Moreover, they can also help eliminate unnecessary quarantining, as the system will designate low risk versus high-risk contacts depending on time spent in close proximity (15 minutes is considered to be the threshold for high-risk contacts). The TAG also eliminates any potential lag time in contact tracing. Since contact data is automated to the dashboard and immediately accessible after a positive test, you would not have to rely on understaffed contact tracing teams to perform calls and interviews to determine high risk contacts. As many Americans are protective of their privacy, the btwTAG does not record an individual’s location, only their proximity to other TAGs. Finally, the implementation of the TAG can help a workforce feel safer and more comfortable knowing that they have an immediate, accurate, efficient contact tracing system in place. Major sports organizations like the NFL, NBA, and some college athletics conferences are already using similar technologies with great success. This technology allowed the NFL to play a full season while only having a 0.11% positive rate, despite the sport requiring situations where social distancing is impossible. If this technology was implemented in business, academic, and healthcare settings in the U.S, we would be able to save countless American lives and help defeat the spread of COVID-19.
Albert Einstein once said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is clear that what we are doing is not working. America has become a superpower through its ability to innovate, so to continue to use archaic methods of contact tracing is to defy the very characteristics of what has made our country great. Detailed statistics, studies, and U.S COVID numbers at large prove that our current contact tracing system is inaccurate and inefficient, and it’s in everyone's best interest to implement the best readily available technology to replace it.
Gutiérrez, Pablo, et al. “COVID World Map: Which Countries Have the Most Coronavirus Vaccinations, Cases and Deaths?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Jan. 2021, www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/22/covid-world-map-which-countries-have-the-most-coronavirus-vaccinations-cases-and-deaths.
Perrault, Andrew, et al. “DESIGNING EFFICIENT CONTACT TRACING THROUGH RISK-BASED QUARANTINING.” Nber.org, National Bureau of Economic Research, Nov. 2020, www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w28135/w28135.pdf.
Lash, R. Ryan, et al. “COVID-19 Contact Tracing in Two Counties - North Carolina, June–July 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6938e3.htm.
McClain, Colleen, and Lee Rainie. “The Challenges of Contact Tracing as U.S. Battles COVID-19.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 17 Dec. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/10/30/the-challenges-of-contact-tracing-as-u-s-battles-covid-19/.
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