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COVID-19 Davao City

Contact tracing is PH’s ‘weakest link’ but mobile phones can help

Researchers at the University of the Philippines (UP) are pushing for the use of digital mobile technology to help fix what they call “the weakest link” in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic: contact tracing efforts.

“We continue to reiterate the need for an efficient and effective contract tracing system to track those who could have been exposed to the infective individual,” the researchers said in their latest forecast report released on May 8, 2020.

“To this end, the national and local government should consider hiring and training more personnel to do contact tracing. Where applicable, digital contact tracing apps should be used,” they added.

Forecast Report No. 6 (COVID-19 FORECASTS IN THE PHILIPPINES: Sub-National Models for NCR and other Selected Areas) was written by UP professors Guido David, Ph.D.; Ranjit Singh Rye, MPA; and Ma Patricia Agbulos, MBM.

According to Rye, the study is “an independent research conducted by UP faculty with support from OCTA Research” of which all three are affiliated.

While the researchers lauded the government for expanding the country’s testing capabilities, they said mass testing without effective contact tracing “will only increase the value of R (referring to reproduction or the rate of the pandemic’s speed) and without stemming possible new infections especially once the restrictions are loosened.”

“Contact tracing is the weakest link in our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said.

They said digital technology using smartphones could be used to speed up efforts to track people who could have been exposed to those who are positive of COVID-19.

“Digital contact tracing through the use of mobile phones can reduce the burden of data collection on public health workers, improve accuracy of data, and enable the identification of contacts unknown to the patient,” the researchers said.

Mobile apps

Rye told me he is not aware if government is already using mobile technology for contact tracing.

He added, however, that there are companies from the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector that are already sharing their mobile apps with various local government units (LGUs).

Last week, the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) launched the mobile application RC143 which it said is designed to”help health authorities in contact tracing of COVID-19 cases.”

Smart Communications is providing the app free to its subscribers, although it is available only on Android devices. It can be downloaded here.

“With the user’s consent, the PRC app will track his movements using the location facility of his mobile phone. This information will go to a database through which the PRC will be able to determine which individuals have come into contact with COVID-positive cases,” it added.

Globe Telecom, for its part, partnering with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) for the implementation of a new online platform called TanodCOVID.

An SMS-based self-reporting platform, TanodCOVID encourages people experiencing symptoms to inform health officials by texting their LGU’s verified number. Verified reports from TanodCOVID may be used to detect clustering of suspected cases that can be indicative of possible outbreak in an area.

Limitations

The UP researchers said while technology like peer-to-peer warning systems and other apps are available, their use might be limited in certain areas where smartphones are not prevalent.

The researchers also said privacy should be protected in the use of digital technology for contact tracing.

“More than locating and identifying suspected cases, proper attention must be given to ensure that the person is not put in harm’s way by maintaining privacy,” they said.

They said Privacy Protecting Digital Contact Tracing (PP DCT) will enable a more targeted testing for the infection.

“PP DCT will also allow government to wield quarantine as a precision tool. Only those found to have contact with infected persons become candidates for quarantine,” they said.

“Without PP DCT, quarantine becomes a blunt instrument. If health authorities cannot determine who have been in contact with infected persons, they simply quarantine everybody,” the researchers said.

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