Imagine if your smartphone is alerting you if you were recently infected with COVID-19. A team of MIT researchers is working to develop such a system. The idea is to automate contact tracing, which is used by public health authorities to determine the source of the infection and how it spreads.
How it works
If you test positive for COVID-19, you will be asked who you have been in touch within the last 14 days. Then public health officials contact those people and find out if they need to be tested, quarantined or isolated. This process is done with phone calls manually. MIT researchers want to use phones differently for contact tracing. An infected person at the grocery store may not know, which they say can cause manual tracing efforts. Researchers are developing an app that tracks Bluetooth signals emitted by people’s smartphones. The infected person may indicate that they have tested positive the app.
The program alerts users using the app if they are in touch with an infected person within 6 feet by comparing signals coming from their phones. Contacts also provide information on what to do next and how to contact public health officials. Researchers say the information in the program is anonymous.
“The notifications tell a potential acquaintance that you cross paths with an infected person. They won’t tell you who it is or anything like that, ”said chief research scientist, Daniel Weitzner, at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Weitzner and other MIT researchers are working with experts at Massachusetts General Hospital and other organizations on the project.
Researchers say the app’s goal is to replace manual contact tracing efforts not replace it. “This is a very stringy transformation tool,” said Dr. Louis Ivers, executive director of Mass.
Manual contact tracing is now underway in Massachusetts. Those efforts came to a head last week when the government announced Charlie Baker was working with Partners in Health to reach everyone at risk of contracting a coronavirus infection. Ivers, who collaborated with MIT researchers, said a digital solution would improve state efforts especially with thousands of cases and thousands of contacts the state would have to find manually.
It is not clear when such an app will be available. Weitzner said researchers are working on a model and hope the program can be piloted, but full implementation requires a purchase from public health officials. “It’s not just an app or a technical tool. It needs to be part of a public health strategy,” Weitzner said. “And we are developing it as a tool, and we hope it will be useful for that process.”