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Tracking Coronavirus Exposure: How Contact Tracing Works

A man holds a smartphone showing a tracking and tracing app launched by the National Institute of Public Health to try to halt a return of the new coronavirus, on April 17, 2020 in Oslo. (Heiko Junge /NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
A man holds a smartphone showing a tracking and tracing app launched by the National Institute of Public Health to try to halt a return of the new coronavirus, on April 17, 2020 in Oslo. (Heiko Junge /NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Contact tracing. It’s infectious disease detective work. We learn all about the techniques and technology used to track down people who’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.


Andy Slavitt, former administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Host of the podcast “ In the Bubble.” ( @ASlavitt)

Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Co-author of a “ National coronavirus response: A road to reopening.” ( @cmyeaton)

Andy Greenberg, senior writer for WIRED covering security, privacy and hacker culture. ( @a_greenberg)

From The Reading List

American Enterprise Institute: “ Report: National coronavirus response: A road map to reopening” — “This report provides a road map for navigating through the current COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. It outlines specific directions for adapting our public-health strategy as we limit the epidemic spread of COVID-19 and are able to transition to new tools and approaches to prevent further spread of the disease.”

NPR: “ Ex-Officials Call For $46 Billion For Tracing, Isolating In Next Coronavirus Package” — “‘If we want to get back to a more normal existence, we need to give states the tools they need to contain the virus,’ Andy Slavitt, a former director of Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration, told NPR.”

Wired: “ Does Covid-19 Contact Tracing Pose a Privacy Risk? Your Questions, Answered” — “When Google and Apple announced last week that the two companies are building changes into Android and iOS to enable Bluetooth-based Covid-19 contact tracing, they touched off an immediate firestorm of criticisms. The notion of a Silicon Valley scheme to monitor yet another metric of our lives raised immediate questions about the system’s practicality and its privacy. Now it’s time to seek answers.”

NPR: “ We Asked All 50 States About Their Contact Tracing Capacity. Here’s What We Learned” — “Malachi Stewart, with the Washington D.C. health department, works full-time as a contact tracer for the COVID-19 response. D.C. plans to increase its contract tracing workforce in the near future.”

New Yorker: “ Can We Track COVID-19 and Protect Privacy at the Same Time?” — “Caroline Buckee, a top epidemiologist at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, has devoted her professional life to studying malaria and other infectious diseases. As news of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, Buckee realized that her area of expertise—how infectious diseases evolve as they move through vulnerable populations—would be valuable to health-care workers and elected officials as the virus spread across the globe.”

Medium: “ The Coronavirus is an Evolving Adversary Targeting the Vulnerable” — “I woke up today and tried to understand why am I uneasy with the curve flattening? I called three of the scientists who are most visible, public, and credible to check myself and ask them what we are really learning.”

NPR: “ How Do You Do Contact Tracing? Poor Countries Have Plenty Of Advice” — “The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, says contact tracing will be vital in the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.”

The Verge: “ Google and Apple’s COVID-19 tracking system can’t save lives all on its own” — “During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, global health researcher Anne Liu struggled to convince public health officials that apps and other technologies could help manage the spread of disease. To beat back the outbreak, officials had to locate every person an Ebola patient may have interacted with while they were infectious, in a process called contact tracing. Liu and her colleagues wanted investigators to use apps to compile information, rather than pen and paper. At the time, it was a hard sell.”

Washington Post: “ We need tech and government help with contact tracing. That doesn’t have to mean Big Brother.” — “We understand we are at war. We can see the carnage. We need to mobilize the economy to beat the disease and achieve pandemic resilience. The coming challenge in our fight against the novel coronavirus is to massively scale up testing and contact tracing.”

BBC: “ Coronavirus: NHS contact tracing app to target 80% of smartphone users” — “A contact-tracing app could help stop the coronavirus pandemic, but 80% of current smartphone owners would need to use it, say experts advising the NHS.”

Wired: “ Clever Cryptography Could Protect Privacy in Covid-19 Contact-Tracing Apps” — “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, any system that used smartphones to track locations and contacts sounded like a dystopian surveillance nightmare. Now, it sounds like a dystopian surveillance nightmare that could also save millions of lives and rescue the global economy. The paradoxical challenge: to build that vast tracking system without it becoming a full-on panopticon.”

Slate: “ Commentary: We Can’t Reopen the Country Without Better Contact Tracing” — “As Americans enter the second month of coronavirus isolation, experts are thinking through what systems we’ll need to have in place before loosening restrictions. The general consensus is we’ll need widespread testing in place, as well as methods to manage inevitable subsequent outbreaks. Some countries, like Singapore and Korea, have rolled out apps that track users’ locations and ping them if they’ve recently crossed paths with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

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