As Chicago and other big cities make plans for emerging from pandemic-induced cocooning, we face a simple decision.
We can give up a measure of personal choice and get the coronavirus under control reasonably quickly. Or we can refuse to make common-sense accommodations and then face recurring outbreaks for years.
Much of the developed world has chosen the first option. The United States is quite capable of choosing the second.
I’ve spent the past few weeks speaking with business leaders, government officials, medical experts and technologists about what it’ll take to put the pandemic behind us. My takeaways:
- There’s no consensus on how to proceed. But there’s strong interest in developing a coordinated approach.
- The federal government is never going to come up with a national scheme. Any solution will have to be regional. The private sector will be the major driver.
- Decision-makers are aware of what needs to be done, based on what has worked in Asia. The five tools, as one business person put it, are social distancing, personal protective equipment, testing, taking temperatures and contact tracing.
- Of the five, the first four at best will reduce risk. Contact tracing — tracking down and treating as many people as possible who’ve crossed paths with someone infected — is the one proven way to end a pandemic short of the vaccine that we don’t yet have.
- Given how easily COVID-19 spreads, effective large-scale contact tracing will require technology. Older solutions, such as the neighborhood-alert system used in South Korea, involve a risk of privacy loss. That’s less of a problem with newer technology. The sticking point is that participation has to be mandatory for contact tracing to work.
- Some will bitterly resist the compulsory aspect, even if it means just using an ID card to enter a building or ride a bus. Getting buy-in will take a long, fraught public conversation.
What digital contact tracing might look like in this country, no one knows. I’ve touted mobile apps using Bluetooth and GPS technology, but it’s become apparent the voluntary adoption rate for these apps is too low to be effective, and mandating them isn’t in the cards.
A more promising route might be tinkering with existing technology.
Since 9/11, many office buildings and tenants have implemented some form of access control. More-advanced systems require tapping a card to open a door or summon an elevator. The taps are logged, making it possible to trace someone’s path through a building.
That technology could be adapted for contact tracing. If an infected party rode elevator A to floor B, those who potentially crossed paths with that person could be notified without troubling everybody else.
The early adopters of tracing technology would be big companies with many employees and deep pockets. The workers already have ID cards.
The idea might catch on with smaller businesses. Operators of restaurants, bars and music clubs might band together to offer a nightlife access card as a security measure for their patrons. You’d tap the card on arriving to ensure you’d be notified if a fellow customer later tested positive.
Mass transit is especially challenging. Despite precautions such as rear-door bus boarding and longer trains to minimize crowding, six-foot social distancing isn’t practical. So riders who’ve abandoned the system won’t be easily coaxed back.
Electronic farecards such as Ventra offer a possible solution. Ventra tracks when and where each card is used to pay the fare on entering a CTA bus or an L station. Cards can be registered to users, so the system’s well suited to contact tracing if the CTA chose to do so.
Some businesses have decided contact tracing is in their interest. Rob Armstrong of Zebra Technologies in Lincolnshire, which makes handheld data-capture devices used in retail and warehouses, says the company developed contact-tracing software for its products in response to demand from clients who want to protect their workers.
The pandemic will accelerate adoption of digital medical technology. Contact tracing might be carried along in that tide.
“We’ll be five years ahead of where we would have been had COVID not happened,” says Gary Conkright, chief executive office of PhysIQ, a Chicago provider of wearable sensor technology that could be used for remote monitoring of coronavirus symptoms.
We know what to do. We just need to suck it up and do it.