Contact Tracing – What is it and How Does it Work?

As Australian states — and the rest of the world — slowly begin to lift the most limiting lockdown restrictions, there have been many discussions around contact tracing and its effectiveness in preventing another severe outbreak. In fact, for many experts, contact tracing offers the only viable solution between balancing a return to “normal” with the fact that the potential remains for the virus to spread.

 But what exactly is contact tracing? And How does the Australian Covidsafe app work? Here, we look into the contact tracing concept and how Australia hopes to keep infection rates low using smartphones.

 

What Is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is the process of identifying individuals who have come into contact with an infected person. It has been used for decades in the healthcare sector, most commonly with TB, measles, STIs such as HIV, and more recently, for novel viruses such as SARS and MERS. In essence, the concept traces back an infected individual’s movements and tries to identify others they have come in contact with.

Its goals are to find cases as quickly as possible and mitigate any further spread of infection, alerting anyone with the possibility of infection and offering treatment where required. It also serves as an early-warning system that may lead to quarantine for individuals who have come into contact with infected individuals whether they show symptoms of any given disease or not.

 

How Does Contact Tracing Work?

Partly fuelled by the ubiquity of smartphones, today’s contact tracing solutions are highly advanced, automatically recording the proximity of other app users using wireless technologies. Once you are signed up, you will usually be required to enter personal information such as your age and address. The app will run in the background of your smartphone, automatically logging the individuals you come into contact with.

If, later on, you contract the virus, any users logged within your contact tracing app will be notified and given advice on how to proceed. In some cases, notifications will also be sent to more distant contacts, depending on the particular situation and level of alert. Naturally, this works the other way around too, and if anyone you have come into contact with contracts the virus, you will receive a notification and directions and what to do next.

 

What About the Covidsafe App in Australia? 

Arguably, Australia is among the world leaders when it comes to contact tracing, with the Covidsafe app downloaded by almost 6 million citizens to-date. Currently, the app is not mandated by law, and participation relies on the consent of individual citizens. However, the uptake of the app has been seen as a positive in the fight against the coronavirus.

Using Bluetooth to record contact with anyone who also has the app on their phone, all data is fully encrypted and anonymised, so personal information such as your age, address, and phone number are never shared.  In the case of contact tracing in Australia through the app, should someone become infected, they will receive a unique code that allows health officials to access the list of anonymous contacts over the past 21days.

The app itself can be downloaded from the both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store, and also directly from covidsafe.gov.au and australia.gov.au/app. However, while early concerns and issues surrounding healthcare professionals accessing the required data have recently come to light, it is hoped that these teething problems will be overcome quickly to allow the app to function correctly.

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