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These small devices could be the future of contact tracing

Contact Trace
Posted at 11:31 AM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 11:51:02-05

COVID-19 contact tracing programs across the country are being scaled back as the omicron wave subsides.

Health departments are encouraging people to alert their close contacts themselves after testing positive, and those still working as contact tracers are focusing on the most vulnerable communities.

Now, scientists are working to make contact tracing more effective for the future.

"Maybe contact tracing wasn't successful, given the disease parameters and how COVID spread. But, in the future, there could be maybe a different disease that spreads in a slightly different way, and then contact tracing may be an extremely effective tool that's stopping the spread," said Sae Woo Nam, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "So, I think we just need to have these tools ready in case you know we have another pandemic."

Nam has been working on a radio system for contact tracing. The tiny devices can be worn, carried or mounted in areas with poor ventilation, like an elevator, to monitor the spread of disease.

The radio system devices, which use Bluetooth to communicate, help protect privacy because they're not linked to the person wearing them.

Nam also says the devices can be used in places where smartphones aren't continually monitored.

"It could be easier to deploy, say, in nursing homes or in schools with children," Nam said. "Kids could carry it, it could be a little more organized so kids can run around the playground and not worry about whether it would break because they smashed it against something."

Nam estimates mass-producing the devices would cost less than $10 a unit. He also sees the potential for using it with animals in the future to stop the spread of disease in the food supply.