The US should stop contact tracing COVID-19. Invest in genetic sequencing instead.

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Contact tracing
  • The US is still trying, and failing, to contact trace the coronavirus.
  • Other countries have put a premium on sequencing virus, tracking the spread of variants instead.
  • It’s a much better way to see what the virus is doing, and strategize national mitigation plans.
  • This article is one in a four-part series on the simple ways to fix the America’s biggest COVID-19 mistakes. Click here to read more.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

From the beginning of this pandemic, we knew contact tracing the coronavirus was going to be a challenge in the US.

A year ago, there were just 2,200 contact tracers stationed across the country. These were the people who had originally been tasked with calling up or visiting individuals and facilities where pathogens including sexually transmitted diseases, foodborne illnesses, and hepatitis cases were spreading fast.

But when COVID-19 arrived, their work shifted to focus more on this new, largely unknown viral threat. Problem is, this novel coronavirus spreads through communities somewhat differently than those other diseases do, and often in far stealthier ways that are more difficult to track.

It’s time for America to call it quits on contact tracing the coronavirus.

Let’s face it: the job is one the US was never equipped to do well on this scale anyway. Nor were Americans always willing (or able) to do their part and quarantine when exposed.

“People have been out of work for months, they’re frustrated,” Ohio contact tracer John Henry told reporters last summer, already keenly aware of how troubled the nation’s piecemeal tracing system was at the time. “Now, they’re getting contacted by the health department saying they need to self-quarantine for 14 days.”

Even now, one year into the pandemic, efforts to contact trace the path of COVID-19 infections across communities are often left incomplete, with some people who’ve been exposed to a sick patient notified, while others are never called.

Not that it really matters. Many contacts never even pick up the phone anyway, tracers say.

“At the core of human nature, we’re a very narcissistic group, right?” former CDC officer Rishi Desai, who used to contact trace disease outbreaks for that agency, previously told Insider. “That’s kind of the crux of what’s happening: if you’re not in the ICU yourself, you don’t see this as a big deal.”

Contact tracing COVID-19 outbreaks leaves us one step behind

covid scientist lab coronavirus testing samples
Scientists work in a lab testing COVID-19 samples at New York City’s health department, April 23, 2020.

Before 2020, most contact tracing in the US was done for diseases that don’t spread through the air.

If there was an outbreak of an infectious disease at a meatpacking plant, inside a nursing home, abroad a cruise ship, or on an NBA team, it might involve improper hand hygiene, or bad food. Contact tracers could then visit the affected patients who’d been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases, foodborne pathogens, or other viral illnesses in person, where their message at least had a fighting chance to be heard.

The coronavirus is different. You don’t need to share a needle, eat with dirty hands, or exchange any bodily fluids to get it. All it takes is some contaminated air. And, because that air is often spewed out by people who are not showing any tell-tale symptoms, it can be well on its way through a community before health experts and disease tracers even know it’s there.

In the meantime, other important contact tracing and STD prevention work has been hit hard by the pandemic, with clinic visits, prescriptions for HIV prevention drug PrEP, and lab testing all down dramatically across the US. More tracers back on the task could help connect people with those services – safely – by providing more virtual care (when possible), and encouraging people to go in for (masked) STD tests.

“We’re really worried about the larger issues of people not getting tested, people not getting treated, and what that means for inadvertent spread of infections in the future,” David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors told Insider last year.

Instead of ramping up contact tracing for COVID-19, the US should focus more on viral sequencing, which will help us determine exactly where the virus is spreading quickest, and what we should be doing now to stop it in its tracks.

The US should prioritize genetic sequencing to track the virus

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In the last seven months, experts in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil have identified mutated coronavirus strains that may be better at infecting humans or evading vaccines by genetically sequencing samples of the virus.

But the US has sequenced less than 0.5% of its 29.2 million coronavirus cases – only 5 out of every 1,000.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that dismal track record is a “somewhat inexcusable deficiency.”

The UK does “many, many, many fold more sequenced surveillance than we do,” Fauci said during the Precision Medicine World Conference in January.

The UK’s nationwide sequencing program analyzes 61 out of every 1,000 coronavirus cases – about 12 times the number of cases that are sequenced in the US. These efforts likely helped UK researchers detect the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant outside London in September.

But even the UK’s sequencing efforts pale in comparison to those in Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand. These nations have sequenced 63%, 48%, and 35% of their coronavirus cases, respectively – the most of any countries so far, according to data from GISAID, a global database that collects coronavirus genomes. The US hovers around 33rd on that list – behind countries like Canada, China, Papua New Guinea, and Rwanda – a slight improvement from its 43rd ranking in December.

When we can’t sequence many cases, strains travel fast. That’s what happened with the B.1.1.7 variant first spotted in the UK last fall.

The US didn’t report its first case involving B.1.1.7 until December 29, at least three weeks after the variant entered the country, according to some disease experts. The sooner scientists can identify new strains, the better we can prepare for any potential public-health consequences.

When you know where the virus is, it’s easier to stop it

Makarora New Zealand
New Zealand, which has emerged as a world leader fighting COVID-19 infections, has sequenced more than a third of all documented coronavirus cases in the nation.

Knowing where a more transmissible variant is spreading can inform public health protocols and travel bans, among other viral mitigation measures. A country lacking proper genetic surveillance has no way of knowing if a strain is spreading silently within its borders – and that “comes back to bite us,” Fauci said.

Sequencing capabilities, though universally dismal, vary dramatically within the US. Maine, Washington, and Hawaii have sequenced about 3% of all cases reported there in the last 14 months, according to the CDC, while Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have sequenced less than 0.1% of their cases.

In order to improve the country’s genetic surveillance – and get a jump on any future variants – the US needs to centralize its efforts, and scale-up its nationwide sequencing program.

The CDC launched a consortium last May called SPHERES to coordinate genomic sequencing in the US. But “poor funding, coordination, and capacity” resulted in “patchy” data, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Science.

Fauci said SPHERES is now partnering with the National Institutes of Health to consolidate all the sequencing data coming from independent US labs by “streaming it into one accessible database so that we can do much more than we’re doing.”

On February 22, President Biden also announced the CDC would be investing nearly $200 million into sequencing efforts, to more than triple the nation’s weekly rate to 25,000 sequences.

Those efforts have borne some fruit in the last few weeks, as US researchers have pinpointed new coronavirus variants in New York and California, among others.

The US should focus more of its coronavirus efforts on this sequencing, and let the contact tracers go back to their work charting and preventing more STD spread, before it’s too late.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The 4 things the US is doing wrong in the fight against COVID-19, and what we should be doing instead

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Chris Duncan, whose 75 year old mother Constance died from COVID on her birthday, photographs a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall as the United States counted 200,000 lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic, September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC.

  • We’ve been living pandemic life for a year now.
  • Insider has identified 4 ways we could be living with COVID-19 better, right now.
  • Safer travel, savvier surveillance, and well-regulated masks are all areas we can improve, and the results could be huge.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After a year of pandemic life, better days appear to be on the horizon.

“By July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a BBQ and celebrate Independence Day,” President Biden said Thursday, on the one year anniversary of World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration.

Biden’s projection lines up well with what other experts have said: by this summer, things won’t be perfect, but we will be living life again, reconnecting with family and friends.

Yet the virus will still be with us well beyond then for many, many months to come. Even as tens of millions of vaccines have started to take effect, the relief they provide is muffled by the fact that there are still no great treatments for this coronavirus yet.

“This is not the last pandemic we’re all gonna face, and we will need to do much, much better next time around,” Brown University dean of public health Ashish Jha told reporters on the pandemic’s anniversary this week.

“We just can’t repeat this performance again, it has been so awful,” he said.

Knowing that, here are the four things we could clearly be doing better to live alongside the virus more safely and more tolerably, right now.

1. Forget abstinence. We should be encouraging the right kinds of travel.

disney world pandemic

There’s no reason that grandparents can’t fly around the country to see their grandkids this summer, with some level of continued vigilance. 

“I don’t believe it’s unsafe,” Jha said. 

Read Insider’s report on how we can travel without spreading COVID-19

2. Everyone should have cheap and easy at-home COVID-19 test kits.

Color COVID 19 test site
More COVID-19 tests should be available for use at home.

There is truly no good reason why we don’t.

“We have more than enough technology and ability to have widespread antigen testing available for the American people at probably $3, 4 bucks a pop,” Jha said. “Cheap, easy.”

Let’s make it happen. 

Read Insider’s report on how testing could be improved.

3. We should stop wasting time contact tracing for COVID-19.

Contact tracing

Contact tracing the coronavirus is a waste of precious resources. Instead, we should focus more on variant surveillance. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci calls this a “somewhat inexcusable deficiency.”

Read Insider’s report on how the US should step up its genetic sequencing game — fast — and let the contact tracers of the country do other vitally important work.

4. We should hack-a-thon our way to better masks.

covid masks
Sandra Martínez sews a face mask at her atelier.

“You have basically an unregulated bunch of products, nobody really knows how they perform,” University of Wisconsin mechanical engineering professor David Rothamer said.

Crowdsourcing creative solutions to such tough design issues is something the federal government has done before. Just ask NASA. 

Read Insider’s report on how we could have much comfier, safer (and perhaps more stylish) masks.

Read the original article on Business Insider

I took Johns Hopkins University’s 21-hour COVID-19 contact tracing course, and I think everyone should too

Shot of an unrecognisable gloved woman using a smartphone in an airport
Students learn to become contact tracers, to identify contacts, and to support both patients and healthcare workers.

  • I took the free online COVID-19 contact tracing course offered by John Hopkins University.
  • I learned how to become a contact tracer and save lives, and I think everyone should take it.
  • The course is taught by experts and my version included an online help forum – I’d give it a B+.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Although most of us are now overloaded with information about COVID-19, there’s always more to learn.

New variants have led to more research and there is still no clear picture of when exactly the pandemic will end.

A John Hopkins professor, Dr. Martin Makary, said the US would reach herd immunity by April, but other experts disagree.

Until that happens, contact tracing and self-isolation will have to continue.

I decided to take the COVID-19 contact tracing course offered by John Hopkins so that I could learn more about the work of the trackers and how they’re helping to reduce the impact of the pandemic.

I took the Spanish version but the US course listed on Coursera is a free seven-hour class taught by Emily Gurley, Ph.D., MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist with a background in outbreak response.

What you’ll learn and how

The course covers the science of COVID-19, including its infectious period and why contact tracing is a particularly effective method of stopping the virus in its tracks.

Course students will learn how to become contact tracers, identify contacts, and support both patients and healthcare workers in the process.

They will be given simulations to explain some of the challenges posed by contact tracing.

In my course, which was 21 hours long, we had a Virtual Campus Forum where people could ask classmates or tutors any questions they had about the course.

healthcare workers coronavirus
People who aren’t healthcare workers will have had a different experience of the pandemic.

There’s also a final exam that’s easy enough to pass if you’ve studied and are clear on the key concepts.

There are several questions and it’ll take longer than you think as you have to really understand what they’re saying.

Unlike most exams, you won’t have to wait to find out your grade – they’ll tell you straight away.

After completing the course, you’ll get a certificate too.

You should take it even if you don’t work in healthcare

A lot of people asked me why I was taking the course if I wasn’t a healthcare professional.

My answer was always the same.

The course is a great way to learn more about what’s happening in our world right now and the important work contact tracers do.

People who aren’t healthcare workers will have had a different experience of the pandemic and there are worries that complacency is on the rise – testing has already declined in the US.

india contact tracing
Course students will learn how to become contact tracers, identify contacts, and support both patients and healthcare workers.

It could be a wake-up call, or it could prepare you if you ever have to deal with a COVID-19 case in your home or local community, as a lot of people don’t immediately know what to do and there’s a lot to take in.

I found the course very useful, although I think certain things could be improved – like having notes available in writing, for example. I’d give the course a B+.

Ultimately, I learned that being a contact tracer isn’t just about looking for positive cases, but also about saving lives.

Read the original article on Business Insider

3 ways the US can improve COVID contact tracing efforts and encourage honest participation

A person gets a temperature check before entering an Apple store on June 22, 2020 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City.
The US has a poor success rate when it comes to contact tracing coronavirus infections thus far.

  • The US has notably been unsuccessful in using contact tracing to reduce COVID-19 outbreaks.
  • A recent study suggests that more than 40% of people would not speak to public health officials when contacted.
  • Kellogg School clinical professor, Sarit Markovich, says that to get people to participate in contract tracing, there needs to be a level of trust.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

As COVID cases surged across the US last December, the CDC reckoned with a stark truth: Contact tracing couldn’t be scaled up to match the virus’ spread.

The practice of contact tracing – or identifying, assessing, and managing people who have been exposed to a disease – is an essential tool for controlling outbreaks by interrupting a disease’s transmission chains. And indeed, combined with lockdowns and mask ordinances, some countries have had great success using contact tracing to reduce outbreaks.

So why have attempts to institute it failed in so many other countries, most notably the US? And given that COVID is likely to be with us in some form for quite a while, are there ways to make contact tracing more effective here?

Sarit Markovich, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School, says that contact tracing, at its core, hinges on trust. This means that trust will need to be at the foundation of any successful efforts moving forward. This includes building trust in the technology, specifically in terms of false positives, trust that information will be kept private, and trust that people will not suffer consequences for self-reporting.

Here, she offers her thoughts on where contact tracing can fail, and how to do it better.

Consider your social makeup

Contact tracing requires individuals to share private information in service to the public good. In considering how to solicit this information, it helps to understand the difference between centralized and decentralized societies, Markovich said.

In countries with centralized governments, like China or Singapore, contact tracing is mandated and compliance is universal. Governments track people’s movement through a national phone app or wearable tokens, which people scan as they move between locations. Noncompliance is heavily fined. In general, these societies prioritize collective welfare over individual freedoms, like privacy.

“If the government makes you do it, you do it,” Markovich summarized. “And now in many of those places, people are back to their offices and normal life.”

But in democratic societies where government is decentralized, individual rights can be in tension with public health, Markovich said. Strategies that are effective in centralized societies are less likely to work in decentralized ones.

In Israel, for example, the government-mandated digital contact tracing and levied hefty fines for noncompliance. Given the country’s population size and relative homogeneity, it seemed as if national contact tracing would work much like it did in Singapore, Markovich said. But people objected to being tracked. They turned off or left their phones at home, and the initiatives have been unsuccessful.

“In decentralized societies, people do not completely trust the technology and do not completely trust authorities knowing where they are,” Markovich said. “They want privacy.”

Lower-tech approaches, where public health workers individually interview exposed individuals about their contacts, are unfortunately no more promising.

In Israel, for example, a volunteer-led startup tried to launch in-person contact tracing as an alternative to the government’s digital model. The initiative stalled when it turned out residents did not want to share personal information with strangers. That same skepticism exists in the US, where 41% of people in a recent Pew survey said that they wouldn’t speak to a public health official who contacted them by phone or text.

“The goal is to make people get used to contact tracing in a context that’s not scary and in a way where its effect on others is not negative but positive,” she said.

Keep it local

For now, Markovich believes that in decentralized societies, national contact tracing initiatives won’t work. A better option: hand the lead over to local governments and organizations.

At this smaller scale, Markovich says contact tracing becomes easier to centralize. Initiatives can be heavily encouraged or even mandated, and enforcement is also easier when it is tied to the social pressures of local communities or the requests of employers.

“Organizations and municipalities have an advantage because there’s more trust involved,” Markovich said. “They can centralize and mandate it, because if you want to be part of an organization – an employee at your company, for example – there are rules you will have to comply with.”

Over time, Markovich believes that the number of organizations and communities that mandate contact tracing will grow, especially as more local models – a church, a factory, or a city whose leaders have established trust – start to show success.

Reward disclosure without punishing exposure

She also advises that local communities and organizations think carefully about how to encourage people to disclose their contacts. This means, first and foremost, minimizing the negative consequences on all parties: those who have tested positive and are disclosing their contacts, as well as the individuals whom they have exposed.

Here, technology has a powerful role to play. Markovich observes that in some communities, COVID-positive people are blamed for spreading the virus. This practice of “COVID-shaming” could make them less likely to self-report their contacts.

“This is where technology helps,” Markovich said. “You want to use technology rather than rely on people to tell you who they’ve been in contact with or that they’re sick. It’s not about self-reporting. The technology tells you.”

But despite the benefits of technology that can automatically notify people of exposure (see sidebar), Markovich also notes that the human element shouldn’t be ignored. Follow up calls from trained professionals will provide an opportunity for people to ask questions about next steps, express concerns, and learn how to self-isolate, if required.

“The human part is important,” Markovich said. “Technology is great in terms of detection speed, but human contact creates trust.”

And whatever the technology used, if people do have to quarantine because they’ve been exposed to COVID, employers should assure their employees that they will be compensated for the time they self-isolate. Markovich cites incidents in which employees who have been exposed to the virus went to work because they lacked paid sick leave or feared losing their job. Since some sectors are at higher risk for infection, like grocery stores, the government should share these costs with organizations.

“We need incentives to encourage people to tell the truth and feel comfortable staying home,” Markovich said. “If you know that you’re going to be compensated even if you’re home, then you’re definitely going to feel more comfortable self-reporting and self-isolating.”

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Vietnam was ranked 2nd for successfully handling the coronavirus pandemic, and its contact tracing was so good it barely had to lock down

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Medical personnel in protective suits conduct swab tests for COVID-19 on the support staff for the Communist Party of Vietnam 13th National Congress at the National Convention Centre in Hanoi on January 29, 2021.

  • Vietnam has reported 2,362 coronavirus cases and 35 deaths, despite its population of 97 million.
  • From previous experience, Vietnam had a long-term plan in place to cope with outbreaks.
  • Contact tracing, strategic testing, clear messaging, and mask-wearing prevented mass lockdowns.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Throughout the pandemic, each country has implemented its own response to the virus – some better than others.

Countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Taiwan have been praised for the way their leaders acted quickly.

Before recording a single coronavirus case, New Zealand imposed travel restrictions on February 3, 2020 for travelers coming from mainland China.

Australia had stricter rules than most other countries – only allowing residents to travel within 3 miles of their homes.

In an op-ed for Time magazine, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the country’s success to handling the coronavirus outbreak was “no coincidence.”

“The painful lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which left Taiwan scarred with the loss of dozens of lives, put our government and people on high alert early on,” Ing-wen wrote.

Not too far away lies Vietnam – which has recorded fewer 2,500 cases of the novel coronavirus and 35 deaths – with a population of 97 million people, and shared borders with China, Cambodia, and Laos.

Thinktank The Lowy Institute published an index on January 28 ranking 98 countries and their success in handling the coronavirus pandemic. Vietnam ranked No. 2 behind New Zealand. The US ranked 94.

But it hasn’t been praised the way other countries have for its success in combating COVID-19.

Vietnam’s early proactivity and focus on contact tracing helped

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Health officials collect swab samples from a member of the media during coronavirus testing at the government guesthouse in Hanoi on January 18, 2021, ahead of the upcoming 13th Vietnam Communist party congress.

As early as January 2020, Vietnam conducted its first risk assessment, immediately after a cluster of cases of “severe pneumonia” was discovered in Wuhan, China.

Guy Thwaites, an infectious disease doctor who works in one of the main hospitals designated by the Vietnamese government to treat COVID-19 patients, told Insider the government responded “very quickly and robustly.”

“Schools were shut down and there was a limit on international flights coming in,” Thwaites said. “The government did all the simple things quickly.”

Kamal Malhotra, a United Nations resident coordinator in Vietnam, said the country’s success in handling the virus came down to three things: contact tracing, strategic testing, and clear messaging.

Instead of testing everyone, they tested those identified in contact tracing. The borders were shut down and everyone who came into the country was quarantined in government facilities – for free.

Insider’s Kate Taylor was in Vietnam last February when there were fewer than 20 cases in the country. Taylor said she saw an emphasis on safety measures like mask-wearing, knowing symptoms of the virus, and temperature checks.

The country never went into nationwide lockdown while trying to contain the virus

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Motorists wear protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Hanoi on January 29, 2021, a day after Vietnam recorded its first coronavirus outbreak in almost two months.

In an article for the United Nations, Malhotra wrote that the country announced a three-week village-wide quarantine last February. Vietnam closed its border and suspended flights from mainland China, the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world shortly thereafter.

When cases pop up, areas with the infections are placed on a local shutdown where no one can come in or out, Malhotra said.

Instead of locking the entire country down, the prime minister implemented social distancing measures throughout the country for two weeks in April.

By early May, people across Vietnam were largely able to return to their regular lives.

“The government adopted a zero-tolerance approach to get rid of the virus,” Thwaites said. “Basic measures were implemented, but it wasn’t easy. When people trust the government, people do what the government says.”

Vietnam’s approach to combating the virus deserves more recognition

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A man wearing a face mask walks past a public health campaign banner to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Hanoi on January 28, 2021.

Vietnam had the potential to be a hotspot because of its location and population. But by using a low-cost model and implementing basic safety measures (like washing your hands and wearing a mask), it was able to contain the virus within a few months of the pandemic.

No other country with the same size or population has contained the virus the way Vietnam has. With a population of 102 million, Egypt has recorded more than 176,000 coronavirus cases, according to John Hopkins. The Democratic Republic of the Congo – landlocked in the middle of the African continent – has recorded more than 24,000 cases with a population of 89 million.

Despite sharing a border with the country where the outbreak started, Vietnam’s success story is one worth telling.

According to Malhotra, Vietnam had a better response to fighting the virus than New Zealand.

“It’s absurd to compare countries to New Zealand,” he said. “We have much bigger challenges.”

Malhotra believes there’s a bias against Vietnam’s success because of its system of government. Vietnam is a socialist country under the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party.

“There’s a lot of skepticism that the government wasn’t sharing data but that is not true,” Malhotra said. “The data is recorded in real-time and there is no coercion in measures taken here.”

The people of Vietnam are learning to live in their new normal, but are still encouraged to social distance and wear masks.

Countries that have successfully controlled the virus included rigorous strategies in their plans

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People wear protective face masks while attending a public New Year’s Eve countdown party in the city center on December 31, 2020 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Public health experts told Insider countries that have limited the spread of coronavirus have a clear recipe: Create a cohesive federal plan with consistent messaging, get everyone to wear masks, and implement widespread testing and contact tracing. The countries failing to curb their outbreaks are missing at least one of those elements.

The US lacks all of them.

Conflicting messages from the White House and health officials, especially in the first few months of the crisis, delayed safety measures that could have saved lives.

Health officials went back and forth in the early months about who should wear a face mask. First, it was only those in the medical field and those who were sick with the virus, the World Health Organization said last April. Soon after, the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear masks when going out in public.

Former President Donald Trump didn’t wear a mask in public until July while visiting the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – three days after the US hit 3 million coronavirus cases. Two weeks later, cases reached 4 million.

Once the US gets its outbreak under control, contact tracing could be doable again

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A health worker wearing a protective suit and face mask walks inside a quarantine area in Thanh Tri district in the suburbs of Hanoi on March 20, 2020.

The US leads the world with the worst coronavirus toll: more than 27 million cases and 494,000 deaths.

“When you start getting the numbers of cases in the hundreds and potentially thousands, it’s almost impossible for contact tracers to be effective,” Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, previously told Insider’s Aria Bendix.

Emma Hodcroft, a Swiss scientist who studies the coronavirus’ genetic code, told Insider’s Aylin Woodward in November that the US’s first step must be to get its surge under control; then cases could get back to a level where testing and tracing are once again effective.

While the US’s response to COVID-19 has been chaotic and ineffective so far, President Joe Biden has made getting the pandemic under control a top priority.

In his first days as president, Biden rejoined the WHO vaccine distribution program, encouraged mask-wearing, introduced a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that would give needed aid to state and local governments, reopen schools, and send another round of stimulus checks to Americans.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus – I can’t promise that,” Biden said at a December 11 event in Delaware. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly. It’s going to take some time.”

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Singapore said its contact tracing app would only be used to fight the coronavirus, but now police are accessing its data for criminal investigations

TraceTogether Singapore
  • Singapore is under renewed scrutiny after updating the privacy policy of its national contact tracing app TraceTogether, and now says that police can access user data if someone is under criminal investigation. 
  • About 80% of Singapore’s population, around 4.2 million people, are using the app via their devices or government issued wearables.
  • “We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” Minister Desmond Tan said
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Singapore’s contact tracing app, TraceTogether, is under scrutiny after the country revealed the app’s data could be accessed in criminal investigations by local police.  

An update to TraceTogther’s privacy policy on Monday now allows Singapore Police to access app data, whether on a government-issued wearable or on a user’s device, Engadget reported.

Thus far, around 80% of Singapore’s 5.6 million people have downloaded the tracing app. The Singapore government had previously told citizens that adoption of the app would be required in order to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 and loosen up restrictions. 

But as the app’s widespread use is proving helpful for contact tracing, privacy advocates are pointing to central privacy issues related to recent updates. 

Several US states and other countries have developed contact tracing apps with Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification System, which anonymizes user information. In contrast, Singapore’s TraceTogether app opted for the BlueTrace protocol, which Singapore developed itself. 

In Singapore’s system, the user’s contact log is uploaded to a server managed by the government’s health department. The government had previously said that data collected by the app would only be stored for 25 days, and that all data would be encrypted in order to prevent access by third-party services.

But the app’s January 4 update allows that the data “may be used in circumstances where citizen safety and security is or has been affected.” The new privacy policy added that “Authorized Police officers may invoke Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) powers to request users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations.”

Engadget reported that no previous versions of the privacy policy referenced police having access to data collected by TraceTogether, and prior to Monday, the app’s website stated that “data will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing.” 

The paragraph was added to TraceTogether’s policy after Singapore MP Christopher de Souza asked Minister of State and Home Affairs Desmond Tan on Monday if police could access data, and what the privacy safeguards might be.

“We do not preclude the use of TraceTogether data in circumstances where citizens’ safety and security is or has been affected, and this applies to all other data as well,” Tan said

Singaporeans had previously expressed mixed opinions about the TraceTogether app and the overall use of tracking to manage coronavirus. A May 2020 study from the country’s independent think tank, Institutes of Policy Study on the use of surveillance to fight COVID-19 found that around 50% of the population was “agreeable to have their cell phone data tracked without their consent.” However, 87% of respondents were “agreeable to imposing strict surveillance on people who need to be quarantined.”

Singapore has reported fewer than 50 coronavirus cases a day since September 14 and has had two COVID-related deaths in the same time period. 

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