Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

How to Leverage Technology Against America’s Coronavirus Crisis

| Jan. 18, 2021

Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic’s grip on the United States, public health experts are sounding the alarm over mounting infections and deaths signaling the country’s most serious phase of the pandemic to date. Recent statistics estimate the loss of one life every thirty seconds; indeed, Jan. 7 set the record for the deadliest day in our fight against the virus, topping four thousand deaths for the first time.

Even as the first vaccines are distributed across the country the pandemic will continue to rage in the coming months, which officials warn could mean a total of 450,000 deaths before February. Meanwhile, the U.S. healthcare system is under unprecedented stress and the capacity of states to respond to and restrain the spread of the coronavirus is at a critical point in the country’s fight against this pandemic. A newly-discovered extra contagious variant of the virus recently appeared in the United States and has the potential to change most aspects of a U.S. response. In the coming weeks and months, as a new administration prepares to marshal resources and works to become fully operational in combating this virus, every day counts and technology may help to save lives in the lead up to Inauguration Day. In an all-hands-on-deck moment, it’s time to revisit the wildcard issue of digital contact tracing.

During the initial surge of the pandemic, as life started to change across the globe, digital contact tracing was seen as somewhat of an untested tool to augment manual contact tracing efforts. Contact tracing, a vital part of the public health toolkit, is a method of contacting people known to be in close contact with infected individuals. As states considered digital options, many rightly had questions surrounding the effectiveness and security of a solution versus the investment and likelihood of adoption. Would people trust a government-developed app enough to use it regularly? Would a solution be accurate enough to be effective? Should states choose a location-tracking system (like using geolocational cell phone data) or a proximity-based one (using Bluetooth technology), and what investments would have to be made? These were only some of the questions for many dealing with significant unknowns, which remained all but unanswered in the absence of a national coordinating strategy. Even so, first adopters built an ecosystem to test the potential of digital contact tracing as part of their virus mitigation efforts. Google and Apple, in partnership with MIT PACT, developed a novel privacy-preserving yet complicated Exposure Notification system for states to adopt. Other states instead developed and rolled out their own contact tracing apps in partnership with small technology vendors.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Barsallo Lynch, Maria and Lauren Zabierek .“How to Leverage Technology Against America’s Coronavirus Crisis.” The National Interest, January 18, 2021.