Contact Tracing: How Technology Can Help End the Pandemic

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Contact Tracing: How Technology Can Help End the Pandemic

By Robert Firpo-Capiello, Editor-in-Chief and Michal Christine Escobar, Senior Editor - Hotels - 08/19/2020

There is no easy fix. Masks and social distancing are essential. A vaccine is months away.

But there are emerging solutions to slowing and ending the spread of COVID-19 that can be supported and enhanced by technology.

As the hospitality industry attempts to adjust, and readjust, to reopen, and reassess, it is clear that the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t over, and that the threat of multiple hotspots emerging and receding will remain for the foreseeable future. As we went to press, infections were rising in 28 states.

The challenge is, of course, that the novel coronavirus is so easily transmittable, via droplets and fine aerosol, from one person to another. One infected person can infect, on average, 2 to 3 others. If each of those infected people infect three more, in just 10 rounds that ‘patient zero’ can turn into more than 59,000 cases, according to research from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

An emerging consensus about how best to contain the virus suggests that we will continue to see flare-ups at the local level. In communities with more than 25 infections per 100,000, lockdowns will be the only effective means of containment, according to Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. 

But in communities with less than one case per 100,000, the virus can be controlled through testing and contact tracing.

Disease Detectives to the Rescue

Contact tracing is a process by which people who are infected or have come into close contact with an infected person are identified and isolated. Contact-tracing programs have been successfully deployed in Europe and East Asia to slow the spread of infection. 

The process is not dependent on technology — it has been used for decades to contain infectious diseases by relying on people trained to trace the circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers that an infected person may have been in contact with — essentially a team of “disease detectives,” keeping notes and notifying local health officials.

Contact tracing has proved most effective when combined with ample testing, and when a community is either in an early stage of infection or in recovery — at present, for instance, rates of infection in some U.S. states are too high to rely on contact tracing. 

But for the appropriate communities, efficient deployment of contact tracing can indeed help to end the spread of the virus.

Automated Reporting

Contact tracing can be supported by automated property and staff management systems. Here, thought leadership from two solution providers.

“Setting up HR with a process for carrying out contact tracing is a vital aspect of any return-to-work strategy,” says Amanda Nichols, Kronos Incorporated (kronos.com), a provider of workforce management cloud software solutions. She notes that the best way to ensure the frontline workforce is safe, and also prepared to move forward and thrive in this new environment, is through a combination of organizational agility, flexibility, and transparency. Nichols also reports that hotels using the contact-tracing capability from Kronos have the means to analyze existing labor records and the time and attendance data they already collect to quickly identify employees that have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 at work. An employer would simply enter an afflicted employee’s ID number – nothing personally identifiable or health-related – along with location(s) of interest and a date range in order to generate a simple list of potential contacts, i.e. everyone who worked in the same hotel, or certain floors or areas of the same hotel, and at the same time, based on overlapping timestamps. That report can then go straight to HR, which has a responsibility to immediately notify potentially exposed employees and ensure their people receive appropriate care, treatment, and proper direction.

“With HealthePassport, employees, on a daily basis, can input four safety actions into the portal, including symptoms, body temperatures, self-health declarations and health tests such as antibody tests,” says Jonathan Erwin, CEO of Redeapp (redeapp.com). (To learn more about Redeapp’s HealthePassport, read “Managing Workforce Health & Safety.") Erwin also notes that HealthePassport can integrate contact tracing in two different ways, both of which are opt-in for employees: 1) via phone input or 2) via GPS-based location services that identify a device’s location. The privacy-safe implementation of GPS, geo-fenced to only identify a device while in the workplace, tracks proximal and surface exposure, which can’t be done using Bluetooth. 

Significant Challenges

Efforts to launch and coordinate effective contact tracing programs have faced all the challenges one might expect at the local level. Finding and hiring trained contact tracers is difficult — by some estimates there are only a few thousand people in the U.S. with the necessary experience. Training and managing new contact tracers has been fraught with miscommunication, inappropriate compensation, and low morale. (New York City’s efforts have produced mixed results and decidedly uninspiring headlines that often include the word disaster.) 

The logistics can seem daunting, whether one is focusing on a statewide effort, municipal level, or simply on a hospitality ecosystem such as a hotel: Tracing the footsteps of a ‘patient zero’ from their home to, say, a hotel lobby and elevator, gym or grocery store, and then similarly tracking the footsteps of other guests and staff with whom they may have come in contact. 

And that is where technology can be a game changer.

Emerging Tech Solutions

Technology solutions for contact tracing range from well-meaning but ineffectual apps (due to inaccurate location information, incompatibility among platforms, and lack of adoption by the public) to good-but-not-ready-yet ideas such as a national disease-tracking system (similar to storm-tracking systems used by the National Weather Service). 

In the sweet spot — tech that is available and holds promise for hotels, restaurants, theme parks, casinos, and cruise lines — are a range of solutions that employ video content analytics, asset tracking, global positioning, and automated reporting and record-keeping.

Here, a look at just a few of the contact-tracing tech solutions hospitality operators may want to consider.

Asset Tracking

Most of us are familiar with the term “asset tracking” as a means of locating and monitoring physical goods — such as baggage carts, rolling tables, and portable beds in the case of hotels. A transmitter is attached to the item and its whereabouts and movements can be easily tracked. But “assets” can also be people who carry transmitting devices such as smartphones or badges. When asset tracking is applied to people, it can become a valuable component in a contact-tracing program. 

“If someone has tested positive and they offer their information to their HR representative, asset tracking can be used to ascertain the historical locations within the building that that individual visited in the last 14 days,” says Nadir Ali, CEO of Inpixon (inpixon.com), an indoor intelligence company. “Those areas may benefit from a deep cleaning process. It can also show the other devices (such as smartphones) that were in those areas near that time.” Inpixon’s Workplace Readiness solution is different from some current content-tracing tools in that it is employer-managed and employer-owned, with no data leaving the company’s ecosystem and no app or personal information collected. Inpixon’s technology is used by hospitals to help with locating people and assets, and offers hotel operators the opportunity to monitor guest movements and crowding, and can offer guests the ability to check, for instance, whether the property’s on-site restaurant is busy.

Asset tracking technology can often utilize existing Wi-Fi access points, allowing properties to launch the system quickly without additional hardware installation or on-site visits. Inpixon’s system integrates sensors like Wi-Fi access points, transmitters in various tags and smartphones, interactive digital maps, software, and APIs and SDKs.

Video Content Analytics

Video surveillance has been part of some hotels’ security routines for years, for keeping an eye on both the relatively mundane (say, spilled beverages in a corridor) and more serious threats. Video can also be invaluable in criminal investigations. Now, there’s an opportunity to leverage existing video technology — and some emerging enhancements — to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

“Video content analytics technology can play an essential role in productively and rapidly determining which persons came into contact with an infected individual,” says Stephanie Weagle, CMO of BriefCam (briefcam.com), a provider of video content analytics solutions. “When a guest or employee discloses that he/she has been diagnosed with the virus, a hotel can leverage video intelligence software to pinpoint the individual throughout video. With face matching or appearance similarity filters, the hotel can quickly track the individual’s movements across cameras and days. By locating all his/her appearances, the surveillance operator can review relevant video segments to identify staff and areas with which the person interacted during the incubation period, and who need to be advised to self-isolate. By filtering video, the surveillance operator limits the amount of video to review only to the instances where the affected person appeared, and thus saves hours of time in manual review.”

Video content analytics can also help hospitality operators proactively monitor guest activity to identify non-compliance with public health recommendations, including wearing masks and maintaining proper physical distancing. It can analyze guest and staff activity via heatmaps or data visualizations to indicate which areas of the property tend to be the most trafficked, allowing hotels, casinos, restaurants, theme parks, and even cruise ships to benchmark desired norms and to set alerts to prevent overcrowding.

AI-Assisted Positioning

“Contact tracing has been used for decades, but has been time-consuming and error-prone when conducted via phone calls and manually updated charts,” says Michael Bettua, CEO of Volan Technology (volantechnology.com), developer of the AI-assisted Volan Positioning System (VPS). “This is not sustainable for hotel operators. To properly protect staff, the hospitality industry is looking to deploy their own private solutions.”

In an AI-based positioning system, real-time 3D-location positioning replaces the dependency on smartphones, GPS, or Wi-Fi.  Using a private Bluetooth mesh network, VPS is secure and “can do in seconds, for hundreds of people, what one manual tracer can accomplish in a week,” says Bettua. VPS allows hotel operators to see and report incidents of concern, such as medical emergencies, intruders, fire, or assault, from anywhere on the site, and can perform historical tracing of both direct and indirect exposure to the virus based on location, proximity, duration, and frequency of exposure. This allows operators to instantly create reports and a ranked chart that prioritizes those people most exposed, helping to protect staff from contagion and keeping operations running smoothly even during an emergency.

Setting up HR with a process for carrying out contact tracing is a vital aspect of any return to work strategy
Amanda Nichols, Kronos Incorporated

“We are also deployed at Black Fire in Las Vegas, an innovation center for the hospitality industry showcasing the latest technology advancements for operating hotels safely and efficiently,” notes Bettua. “Black Fire is the first of its kind tech hub for the hospitality industry.  Black Fire brings the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), one of the nation’s top research institutions, and Caesars Entertainment, the world’s most diversified casino-entertainment provider, together in a collaborative environment to spark innovations that drive our industry and community forward.”

Wearable Tracking Devices

It’s been well established that potentially high-density settings such as hotels, cruise ships, and long-term care facilities are especially at risk for transmission of the novel coronavirus (not to mention other airborne pathogens such as influenza). Wearable tracking devices can be a solution to the challenges of contact tracing in those contained settings; guests wear a tracking device around their wrist, which can work with an array of sensors the way smartphones and badges can. 

CarePredict (carepredict.com) PinPoint is an automatic digital contact tracing solution that uses the CarePredict Tempo wrist device, which is worn by every staff member, guest, and visitor to a property. When a suspected carrier is identified, the device can provide a digitized list of all the people and places that were exposed to the suspected carrier within seconds.

The technology classifies contacts based on duration and risk of exposure to high- and low-priority contacts. PinPoint also provides a report highlighting the path taken by the infected person within a property and a heatmap of the high traffic areas so that site staff can streamline decontamination and disinfecting efforts in these specific areas. The  wearable can also be used for electronic door access and voice communication, allowing site staff to quickly alert the management team by pressing the button on their wearable or by speaking directly into the Tempo.