ITP Techblog

Brought to you by IT Professionals NZ
« Back to Health IT

Brislen on Tech: Covid-19 tracing

Paul Brislen, Editor. 14 August 2020, 2:32 pm

The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago. The second best time is right now.

The same could be true for COVID-19 tracking. If we'd all downloaded the app, and used it for every location we visited over the past 100 days of COVID-free bliss, we could easily and readily track and trace everyone who came into contact with whoever our new Patient Zero is.

Instead, we have a situation where yesterday there were four cases, today there are 19 and tomorrow we're likely to see Auckland go into lockdown for weeks at Level 3 or potentially (if you clowns keep driving out of town to your baches) Level 4.

Sure, being able to track and trace the index patient and those with whom he or she interacted wouldn't solve the problem entirely. They'd still be infected and the outbreak would be stepped up.

The Six-Million Dollar App.jpg

But we could at least identify who was at risk and get them to isolate, and we could identify who they had been in contact with and get them to isolate.

That would seem to be enough to sort the bug out at that level. As Dr Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl) put it, "The goal of the COVID-19 virus is to find a human host, replicate inside them then find another human host to spread to," and if we can stop the spread at that level, we're pretty good.

But it was not to be. The index patient infected four people (that we know of) and now we're up to 19 (that we know of) and by the time you're reading this it could easily be 50 or 100 people (that we know of) and spread beyond Auckland itself.

Somewhere in those 100 days we became complacent and did not continue to treat this as a live situation. Between the business owners calling for borders to be opened and the universities calling for exemptions for foreign students and the politicians making hay while the sun shone about how we were going overboard, we failed to remember the golden rule: pretend you've already got it and act accordingly.

If I think about my week it included one trip to the office, a couple of drinks with a number of media folk after work, a flight to and from Wellington, one weekend at an archery club shoot with about 100 people, a trip to Bunnings and another trip to a garden centre and drinks with the neighbours. I went to the gym five times, caught up with a friend at his new place of work, took my daughters to a variety of dance classes and places of employment and thankfully that was that.

But if I do have it, I'm about three steps away from infecting the entire country.

So, tracking and tracing is the start of the solution to the spread - along with wearing a mask and for some of us isolating.

Masks are a pain. I've just picked up takeaways (oh dear, I didn't check in either I now realise) and my homemade mask doesn't want to stay on my right ear, and they fog up my glasses. But I and the take away workers (Belly Worship - you go for the lychee pork but stay for the spicy pancakes) all wore them: everyone else went bare faced.

If you're outside Auckland you'll feel doubly self-conscious about wearing one. Don't be - pretend you don't care and put them on anyway because every bit counts and this could be how you squash the spread. Yes, you feel like a right pillock, but think of the alternative?

As you can see from that previous statement, we actually don't know how many people are affected in New Zealand at this point. It could be 19 or it could be 1400. We just don't know.

Data is the answer, but we don't gather it so we're unable to predict. If we follow the scientists' advice, we have to assume the worst, hence locking down the city.

So what are our options when it comes to T&T? Let's assume we have a budget to deploy a solution - let's say it's $100 million and we can do what we like, blue skies thinking, blank piece of paper.

That $100 million is a huge sum of money but spread among five million of us and it's a measly $20 per head of population, so any solution is going to have to rely heavily on existing kit to be a go.

Cellular networks that reach about 97% of the population (although only about 50% of the landmass). Cellphone penetration of more than 100%, evenly spread among the age groups. So it makes sense we would start there.

I can't think of a single cellphone for sale today that doesn't include Bluetooth capability and while many don't use it at all, and the rest of us use it for things like ear buds, we should be considering deployment of a solution that takes this network and device spread into account.

So we could deploy something that is cellphone based (whether smart app or dumb remains to be seen) and we would do well at capturing the vast bulk of the population.

We probably don't need to launch a separate device (sorry, Sam Morgan) and we certainly don't need something that has to be worn around the neck and carried lest we get picked off by the snipers at the checkpoints placed around our city, or whatever it is they're doing.

The bigger problem with an ID card of this type is social licence. It's one thing for me to carry a phone that I've chosen to carry but something else entirely for a government mandated tracking device to be placed on my person. There is a percentage of the population already marching in the streets about this - a tracking card would not go down well and I can't say I blame them.

We have questions about privacy for sure. Who has access to the data, what data does it require, how will it be governed, and so on. I might not want my kids to know I went to Giapo for an ice cream without them, so how secure is the data?

The best solution is to keep the data on the device until such time as the device owner is diagnosed as infections, at which point finding out who they potentially connected with is essential.

The current COVID app is relatively basic - by design - and is little more than a location diary. This is a very good starting point but we can do more. Let's upgrade to include the Bluetooth capability Apple and Google have developed. Let's think about daily health check-ins, such as the Flu Tracker project has. I wear a smartwatch these days and it can tell me my pulse and if I fall over wants to call an ambulance (it's OK little watch, I just jumped on the bed is all) so how about we put those to work as well.

Let's have an app that tells me where my nearest testing station is and what the wait time is. Let's have one with a chat capability so I can go through the basic diagnosis to determine whether I should go stand in a queue for three hours with the robot, not with a person. Let's have a way of storing my health information number so when I get to the end of the queue they can work out who I am in a timely fashion.

And let's make sure those who can't afford a smartphone get one, and a data rich plan to boot.

I'm pretty sure with a $100 million we could do all that and have change. And after all, change is what we need because it's been quite the year, and we're not done yet.

My father in law likes to remind the family that the wettest, coldest, darkest days of winter come after the winter solstice - the shortest day - when everyone is thinking about spring and that they can be quite miserable. But spring does come along, and then summer and it's warm again.

I think that might be a useful way to look at this outbreak. It's pretty miserable right now as we go into a second round of lockdown but … this is the right solution and we can come out the far side with our heads held high. If we follow the science and stick together.


You must be logged in in order to post comments. Log In

Web Development by The Logic Studio