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Contact tracing will be a controversial topic in post-pandemic assessments of what worked and what did not during the COVID-19 response. Americans, after all, place a high value on privacy. Yet it’s difficult to ignore successes nations with surveillance systems achieved when addressing the pandemic.   

An NHS initiative in the U.K. using a framework Apple and Google introduced, in fact, offers a glimpse at the potential of digital epidemiology for battling outbreaks — and the results arrive at a time when America is facing the opportunity to rethink public health infrastructure.   

“The [U.S.] public health infrastructure is very siloed. It’s a one-way reporting approach. This goes back decades,” said Micky Tripathi, who leads the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. “We need to think at a high level about how public health infrastructure can be an ecosystem that many different parties are contributing to.”   

Contact tracing, for instance, is becoming an increasingly integral aspect of a more resilient health care system in the U.S. and other nations as the world looks beyond the chaos wrought by COVID-19 and toward a post-pandemic future.   

Encouraging research results in the U.K.  
Researchers tracked utilization of the NHS COVID-19 App in England and Wales beginning September 24, 2020 through the end of December. Some 16.5 million users, or 28 percent of the population, used the app, which sent 1.7 million exposure notifications.   

“Our study found that the intervention, with nearly 30 percent uptake in the population, reduced the second wave by roughly a quarter,” says Christophe Fraser, a Senior Group Leader in Pathogen Dynamics at the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford, Professor in the Nuffield Department of Medicine and an author of the report The epidemiological impact of the NHS COVID-19 App. “What surprised us was the strength and robustness of the signal and I think we have increasing evidence that digital tools are very powerful.”   

Is what the NHS created a perfect solution? No. But it is evidence that a digital toolbox comprising contact tracing apps, rapid testing and effective data sharing can work as a critical piece of future digital epidemiology efforts.   

“Together with earlier and more preliminary results from Switzerland and Spain, these results indicate that we have a functioning digital and privacy-preserving system that can make an enormous contribution in fighting this and other pandemics,” said Marcel Salathé, who leads the Digital Epidemiology Lab at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. “One can imagine how impactful the system could be if 80 percent of people used it. It is hard to imagine another measure with that level of impact and such low personal inconvenience.”  

Tom Sullivan

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website.