The future of COVID-19 contact tracing could see healthcare workers wear electronic ID tags while they work, according to trials underway at Monash University and healthcare provider Alfred Health.
Researchers are currently trialling the use of Bluetooth-powered tags at the infectious disease ward at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
Mehmet Yuce, associate professor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering, said the connectivity of the tags would help produce more accurate contact tracing data, particularly after a positive COVID-19 case is identified.
“As part of our research, we set up an Internet of Things-connected contact tracing system powered by Bluetooth,” he said in a press release on Dec. 14.
“Within each room, we installed beacon sensors which would identify each person entering the room based on their wearable identification tag and then transmit this data to a central receiver,” he added.
“The connectivity between the beacons, wearable tags, and receivers meant that critical information was obtained instantaneously and could be analysed to inform appropriate infection prevention policies.”
If an infection is identified, all close contacts to the individual can be traced, identified, and ordered to isolate—further, all locations requiring a deep clean can be pinpointed.
Andrew Stewardson, the infectious diseases physician at The Alfred Hospital, said healthcare workers were at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, noting that any advance in the “speed and accuracy” of contact tracing was welcome.
“Protecting healthcare workers from infectious diseases, like COVID-19, also keeps them at work—minimising furlough to maintain the capacity of the hospital system,” Stewardson said.
“Vaccination and robust infection control practices, including appropriate personal protective equipment, are the key tools to keep our frontline staff and patients safe.”
Researchers noted that after trials were complete, the technology could be implemented across hospitals and aged care facilities throughout the country.
COVID-19 has ushered in new advancements and the adoption of new technologies.
At the same time, however, the move has also raised concerns around privacy rights and data protection—particularly considering increasing cyberattacks.
In early November, South Australian authorities had to reassure residents that data collected in the state’s contact tracing system was not compromised after it was hacked.
In June, authorities had to close loopholes in data protection laws after police accessed contract tracing data as part of ongoing investigations.
The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology has called on state governments to “regain the public’s trust” to ensure privacy rights were not whittled away by the widening use of technology in COVID-19 compliance measures.
South Australia is also trialling a home quarantine app that will become the national model if deemed successful.
Residents entering home quarantine are required to download the Quarantine SA app and will need to “check-in” with the app at random intervals during their quarantine period of two weeks.
Users have just 15 minutes to respond to a random check-in notification (in Western Australia, this is just five minutes) by scanning their faces.
If they miss a scan, they will receive a follow-up phone call from the Home Quarantine SA team to discuss the reason why. If the individual misses the phone call, a compliance officer may be sent to the approved address to check on their situation.