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Contact tracing can be a tedious and expensive, yet necessary process to help disrupt the spread of the COVID virus. Governments and public health departments have long relied on traditional means of contact tracing. Technology like GPS, Bluetooth, and secure apps have helped lessen the cost of contact tracing while speeding up the process. Here is how the new technology works.

Contact A

Any person with a smartphone can initiate contact tracing technology. A user, in this case Contact A, downloads an app from their health district or local agency. This app is secure. It does not share the user’s name or any other identifying information. If Contact A receives a positive COVID test, they can choose to share that information with the app.

Contact B

Contact B can also use their smartphone to download the app. If Contact B encounters Contact A, whether inside a grocery store or while riding public transportation, the app will alert Contact B that they have been exposed to the virus. The app “knows” this because it received anonymous data from Contact A’s phone.

Is Contact A’s Data Really Anonymous?

Yes. The app sends data from one app to another through GPS or Bluetooth data. Contact B will simply receive an alert that they were near a person with the virus. Contact B can then choose to quarantine, get tested or decide their next action.

Cost Effectiveness

Prior to the app, someone with a positive COVID test would have received a phone call from a health department contact tracer who would would have asked them to remember every person they interacted with while they were contagious. The contact tracer would have to contact every person on the list. This strategy is expensive, time-consuming and leaves too much up to human memory and error. On the other hand, the app instantaneously receives information on exposure and alerts the app user. This happens even if Contact B doesn’t know Contact A.

There are some disadvantages to contact tracing apps. Not everyone has access to a smartphone or the skill to use it, which limits adoptability. Also, Bluetooth and GPS might register false encounters by not accounting for physical obstructions between users. Despite these drawbacks, contact tracing technology is proving useful to scientists and public health departments.