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Homeland Security

Can 'Corona Detectives' Vanquish the Virus?

By Jamie Dettmer June 02, 2020

European countries have recruited armies of "corona detectives" – contact-tracers tasked with trying to avert a second wave of infections. But tracing the contacts of people recently infected with the coronavirus and persuading them to self-isolate is proving to be no easy mission.

In Britain, officials said Monday the government's expanded coronavirus test-and-trace scheme so far is "successful." A total of 25,000 contact-tracers have been recruited, but the scheme already has run into teething problems.

Newly hired staff say they have been struggling to get a contact-tracing software operating system to work, and some have told British newspapers that glitches have forced them to repeat training they already have completed, delaying their work. Others say they have been sitting around for the past two weeks waiting for technical problems to be solved.

After largely dropping testing and contact-tracing in early March, Britain's scheme is taking off from a standing start. And the country continues having problems reaching its target for wide-scale testing – hitting its 100,000-a-day testing target just twice since early May.

Testing and tracing are viewed as crucial in a bid to ensure the spread of the transmission is curbed – especially with the easing Monday of the country's coronavirus lockdown.

Matt Hancock, the country's health minister, told reporters the "vast majority" of new cases of the coronavirus have been contacted since the contact-tracing scheme was launched last week. "I'm very glad to report that those who are asked to isolate by the contact-tracers are expressing the willingness to do so and we track that very carefully," he said.

Hancock has drawn criticism from opposition politicians, however, for failing to offer any detailed figures amid rising doubts about how well the plan is working.

"Transparency is crucial to building public confidence," said Jonathan Ashworth of Britain's main opposition Labor party. "A successful functioning test, trace and isolate regime is vital for the safe easing of the lockdown. But the health secretary failed yet again to reveal the numbers of people actually tested nor could he tell us how many contacts have been traced so far despite boasting that the test-and-trace system was now 'up and running' and 'successful.'"

One contact-tracer told Britain's Daily Mail newspaper: "Each day we log in and it's the same thing over and over again. We ask what we are going to be doing today only to be told to hold tight and chill out." The contact-tracer added: "It is so chaotic. You complete the online training but that doesn't register on the system. You can have a problem with a login to one of the many different systems we are using, and you are put in a queue with upwards of 300 people for help."

Others told The Times newspaper that the scheme remains "shambolic" and unfit for practical purpose. "I have had absolutely nothing to do," a nurse said. While on duty, the system, called CTAS, is supposed to show the patients assigned to a tracer along with unassigned cases that can be picked up. She said she had seen "zero cases" on the system throughout her shifts.

Britain isn't the only country in Europe struggling to shape a contact-tracing scheme that functions smoothly.

Manual contact tracing

Germany's has probably been the most successful, say analysts, and is credited with keeping the virus much more contained than in France or Italy. But German contact-tracers have eschewed more often than not the use of complicated, tailored software systems, favoring a patchwork of efforts by municipalities, social and health workers, and the police, all overseen by Germany's 375 local public health offices.

Few of the local public health offices have, in fact, had any tailored or specialized contact-tracing software available to them. According to the government, Germany has 183,775 confirmed cases and 8,618 registered deaths.

The country's corona detectives are credited as one of the reasons for Germany's relatively low mortality rate. German authorities are set to roll out soon a Bluetooth/cellphone-based contact-tracing application, enabling the public and authorities to know when someone has had an encounter with an infected person.

But public health officials say even if it does function, they will still base most of their efforts on a much more manual approach, questioning thoroughly those who have been infected and following up with any contacts they say they have had to ensure they do self-isolate.

That roll-up-your-sleeves, more rudimentary strategy is favored even by the designers of coronavirus cellphone applications.

"If you ask me, whether any Bluetooth contact-tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, no," Jason Bay, one of the designers for TraceTogether, Singapore's contact-tracing app, wrote in a blog post recently.

Like Germany, Singapore has relied on a more basic approach and has avoided reliance on technical solutions to trace those who have had contact with the infected and to ensure they quarantine. The police and army have been used to trace thousands people of every day. And Singapore has been tougher about ensuring that isolation of contacts takes place.

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