Ask the Pharmacist

Q. I have heard some talk about a contact tracing app that is being developed. Can you tell me what that is exactly?

A. Some countries have already rolled out a contact tracing app that would be downloaded on your smartphone. This app relies on either Bluetooth or GPS location technology to track our movements. The rationale behind these apps is to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by warning those that infected people come into contact with that they may possibly have been unwittingly exposed to the virus allowing them to take adequate precautions to protect others in turn.

In general, the WHO recommends that if somebody tests positive for this coronavirus, then everyone who may have come into contact with this individual in the last 14 days should be notified so they themselves can quarantine and monitor for symptoms.

This may sound feasible if you have not left your abode since the middle of March when the pandemic was declared and therefore you know exactly who you may have come into contact with, namely your housemates. However, most of us have left our homes at one time or another to run errands such as picking up groceries and/or medications. Some people have been going to work the entire time as they have an essential job. And now, as long sheltered businesses begin to reopen it is certainly not reasonable to expect individuals to know everyone they may have come into “close” contact with in the last 14 days.

Currently, this contact tracing is executed by healthcare workers who would interview the affected person and notify individuals when they may have been exposed to an infectious disease.

This works well when dealing with small exposures to a few individuals at a time, such as when public health contacts partners of someone diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. However, with an outbreak of the size of this one, this model simply does not work since the task would require an extremely large number of front line workers to perform it. There just are not enough trained people to do this contact tracing when the number of infected individuals is so high.

Example “A” is right here in our province. Ontario stated last week that only 80% of the positive cases from testing were contacted within 24 hours and none of their contacts were called. That is where the contact tracing app could come into play. These apps work in the background on your phone and record where you go and who else is around you (as long as they are running the same app) at that time.

Some people believe that the only way we can safely continue to reopen our economy and get back to a new level of normalcy is through the use of these contact tracing apps. In theory, the app could (once a person has been diagnosed with COVID-19) instantly inform you that you may have come into contact with an infected individual, at which point you would quarantine for 14 days. Without the app, you would continue to go about your daily activities and thus possibly infect other people without your knowledge, particularly if you are infected without any symptoms.

Oxford University conducted a study revealing that if 80% of people that own a mobile phone used the app, it would not be necessary to impose another lockdown in the event of a second wave of this coronavirus. This all makes the use of a contact tracing app seem like a “no brainer” to download. Regrettably, it is not as simple as that.

Firstly, there are some concerns about privacy with this app since it currently may have access to everything in your phone. There are numerous companies that are continuing to work on various such apps in an effort to keep the information on your mobile safe from “hackers” while still being able to alert you or others of close contact.

Some are also concerned about the potential for these apps to be used by governments, police forces or big business to monitor us, raising visions of Orwell’s Big Brother. There is also a lively debate as to whether to make the use of these apps voluntary or mandatory in various regions around the world. Alberta is the first Canadian province to roll out a contact tracing app but have encountered technical difficulties and, as such, are awaiting a newer 2.0 version.

Let’s hope that technology will be improved so that we can reap the health benefits of contact tracing with the use of our mobile phones while still protecting our privacy.  For more information on this or any other topic, contact your pharmacist.