Improving COVID-19 Tracing With Technology

COVID-19 tracing system inventor Carlos Barreda in Lincoln. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)
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June 8, 2020 - 6:45am

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the shutdown of thousands of businesses and accounted for more than 40 million lost jobs in the United States. Rigorous contact tracing has been one tool that’s helped slow the spread of COVID-19, but it’s a difficult and labor-intensive process and isn’t always effective. Some tech-savvy entrepreneurs are developing new technology to try to help.

Carlos Barreda drives for a living. He’s an Uber and Lyft driver in Lincoln and travels the city’s streets day and night.

He’s seen firsthand the impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives.

“I gave a ride to a waitress whose unemployment check had not arrived,” Barreda said. “She and her two kids had moved in with her elderly parents." He was grief stricken thinking that she was putting her parents at risk. "I can tell you this story, but I can’t show you the emotions of these people.”

Barreda isn’t just an Uber and Lyft driver. He’s also an entrepreneur has lived in Lincoln for more than 40 years. During that time he worked as a computer programmer.

The driving gives him some extra money, but also helps him meet people. He realized there was something he could do to help people like the waitress he met. He said contact tracing is outdated.

Carlos Barreda shows how to use his COVID-19 tracing system on a cell phone. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

“It's very inefficient contact tracing because you're asking people to remember where they have been,” Barreda said.

He's has created a system he thinks will help save money and lives. It’s a website called PanSPC. The way it works is simple; governments use state issued IDs to assign alpha numeric keys, which would be scanned to enter businesses, schools and stadiums. Your temperature would be taken and loaded into the cloud. Previous scans would be stored in the system as well as any COVID-19 tests you took. If you had a high fever, you would be denied entry.

Right now, even if fever tests are done and someone isn't allowed into a business, all they have to do is go to a store that isn’t testing and potentially infect others.

“They can be sent home because they had a little fever,” Barreda said. “But they could stop at Walmart or a restaurant on their way home. So we can solve all those problems with (this) technology.”

Ali Khan, an epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, calls contact tracing an antiquated system. He said there is room for entrepreneurs like Barreda to help fix it.

“If they can find better solutions to contact tracing and IT solutions to contact tracing in America, then absolutely,” Khan said. “They should be working with the state health department to help them think about ‘how do you find contacts and monitor contacts for 14 days,’ better than we currently can.”

But Khan sees an issue with using temperature checks as a definitive way to check for COVID-19 symptoms.

“We know these thermal thermometers are notoriously inaccurate,” Khan said. “I would be very reluctant to base a whole system on just a thermal scan.”

On top of that, there are privacy concerns with a system like this. Gus Hurwitz is an associate professor at the University Of Nebraska College Of Law. He said Americans don’t like the idea of having their data collected. But during a pandemic, minds could change.

A screenshot of Carlos Barreda's website, 

“I wear face masks to protect others,” Hurwitz said. “I share my health information to protect others in this context.”

Hurwitz said there’s a balance between helping during a national emergency like the pandemic and the worry by many about the permanent erosion of rights. If local governments bought into a system like Barreda’s, Hurwitz said, companies would be free to collect and use voluntarily disclosed information.

“This is the same thing that Facebook and Twitter do,” Hurwitz said. “When you sign up for service, you sign a contract or you enter into an agreement with them that said they're free to collect and use your information.”

And this contract agreement doesn’t have to be written or signed.

“They could have it posted at all entrances that by entering into the store you agree to participate,” Hurwitz said.

If you refuse, businesses wouldn't have to let you in.

“If you tried to come into my house and I asked you to take your shoes off first, I don't need to let you into my house at all,” Hurwitz said. “Let alone with your shoes on or off.”

Congress is currently considering legislation that would regulate the collection and use of information for use in contact tracing efforts.

Barreda said he’s reached out to state and local officials and so far, there hasn’t been any interest in his new contact tracing system. He thinks it’s more efficient than other tracing apps that have been released. Ali Khan and Barreda say many of the apps suffer because less than 10% of the population use them.

“My intention is not to make money,” Barreda said. “If the state of Nebraska can get it and improve on the system or somebody else can improve on the system, somebody can do a better job of marketing, than I am glad.”

Barreda thinks if people knew systems like his could help protect their communities, more Nebraskans would be willing to try them.

“If we cannot prove it's not going to work, then I think we need to move forward with it because it's going to save thousands of lives and millions of dollars,” Barreda said.



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