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Column: Tracking COVID-19 calls for tech, old-school research

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As Hawaii and the nation work toward some semblance of normalcy, the tools used to stave off future coronavirus outbreaks need to evolve beyond testing, quarantines and social distancing.

Humans are social animals, and we can’t stay isolated at home forever. If people are going to be meeting up and hanging out, preventing the spread of COVID-19 needs to include contact tracing.

Contact tracing works backward from a positive COVID-19 test. After the patient is receiving care and isolated, the key is to meticulously review the patient’s activities over the previous few weeks, identifying everywhere the person went and everyone the person met.

With a complete contact tracing map, measures can then be put in place to contain the spread from that single person, keeping it from spreading exponentially through the community. In fact, in smaller communities with limited access to tests, contact tracing is the only effective weapon in the pandemic- fighting arsenal.

Fortunately, some contact tracing can take place automatically, invisibly, through technology. But the best contact tracing still requires the personal touch.

In April, Google and Apple jointly announced an exposure notification system designed to support contact tracing while still preserving personal privacy.

Their solution uses the wireless Bluetooth protocol built into every modern smartphone. If you choose to activate the exposure notification system, your device will act as a beacon, sending periodic, random identification codes.

Other phones with the system enabled will pick up and record these codes anytime they come near your device. Over time, each smartphone will have a log of dozens or hundreds of other smartphones with which they came in close proximity.

If someone later tests positive for COVID-19 and confirms it via an app designed to work with the exposure notification system, every other person whose device has that person’s identifier in their log will get a notification to take precautions and get tested.

It’s important to note that no one — not Apple, not Google or the other people in your exposure notification web — will know who you are. The system just reports that your device came close to a device belonging to someone who reports they contracted the coronavirus.

The system is already running in beta for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. If you’re interested in opting in, check for the latest operating system updates for your smartphone, and review its privacy and health settings.

But technology can go only so far in the contact tracing effort. The most effective solution, in the end, is real people doing old- fashioned detective work.

Only real people can interview someone and catch nuances and details that a smartphone might miss: a relative without a smartphone who spent the weekend on the couch, for example, or who cooked food for an office potluck, and who ended up with the leftovers.

And it will take a lot of people: Public health experts estimate we need 100,000 contact tracers in the U.S. alone to keep up with COVID-19.

Hawaii had 11 dedicated contact tracers, and volunteers have boosted the count to 100. The state Department of Health has said we need 200 contact tracers to be able to track 4,000 people.

Fortunately, Hawaii will receive $50 million in federal funding under the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act to ramp up contact tracing. And the nursing program at University of Hawaii at Manoa is offering a free online contact training course for clinical health care professionals.

As for the rest of us? We should certainly continue to wash up, mask up and practice social distancing. But if you receive a call from a contact tracer, having a detailed calendar or diary of all the places you’ve gone and people you’ve seen would help a lot.

Ryan Ozawa is communications director for local tech company Hawaii Information Service. Join the tech conversation at

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