Contact tracing may not stem COVID-19 pandemic

Is the procedure headed toward a spectacular fail?

Derek Remer Special to OW | 6/11/2020, midnight

Besides the privacy concerns, using the app as the primary method of national contact tracing also fails to account for the percentage of the population who do not have smartphones, and therefore cannot participate in the process. In Los Angeles, we have the benefit of strong internet coverage, but for those who live in internet dead zones, the app may not function correctly. Singapore’s TraceTogether contact tracing app was widely heralded as the one to copy, but proved ineffectual after statistics emerged that revealed only 20 percent of the population were using the app, as opposed to the 80 percent majority needed to make it work.

Hong Kong has been able to severely limit the virus’s spread. A recent LA Times article reported only four deaths from among the population of 7.5 million people, versus the staggering death toll in Los Angeles County which, at press time, numbered nearly 2,700 and counting. But Hong Kong took decisive actions, shutting down their city as early as February and enacting contact tracing months ago. It is possible that the U.S. has waited too long to begin providing adequate testing and therefore our death rates continue to rise.

Even with these newly developed apps, contact tracers will be playing a catch up game.

If digital contact tracing is to be the key solution to slowing this trend, then the public debate comes down to privacy versus efficacy. If people will not use the app of their own accord—ensuring the failure of this technology—then the next step may be mandatory participation. Many will view this as an abuse of their civil liberties, and we may see the start of a bitter fight against this new form of “national surveillance.”