The country needs a unified contact tracing strategy

Published November 28, 2020, 1:49 PM

by Art Samaniego

With the Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the economy, the local government units (LGU), private organizations, and government agencies are advocating the use of contact tracing to easily identify people who have close contact with someone tested positive for Covid-19. When those individuals are identified, the idea is to immediately take steps to isolate them to prevent the disease from spreading.

The problem is, contact tracing methods that come in many forms in the Philippines – from a small piece of paper where the security guards tell visitors to fill up, to a logbook outside a building, to elaborately printed forms, to scanning QR codes and of course using apps to submit information—has made it next to useless.

To solve this, many local government units released their tech solutions for an effective contact tracing method.  Private organizations also joined by releasing new platforms for contact tracing.  Of course, government agencies would not allow themselves to come in last resulting in more contact tracing apps available than what we really need.

Here’s a scenario. If I go home to Tagum, Davao Del Norte, I need to install the Traze App as required by the Department of Transportation.  Since Tagum does not have its own airport, I have to go through the Davao City airport. Davao City requires residents and visitors even transients to install its Safe Davao QR for contact tracing, and when I arrive in Tagum, the Davao del Norte province also requires residents to have a personal QR code ready for contact tracing. Also, since I would be coming from Binan, Laguna, I need to have the Bind360 App installed on my device. Why can’t we have a unified app endorsed by the government?

Around the middle of this year, Google rolled out the Exposure Notification API and Apple followed suit. It’s a joint project of the two tech giants called the Google-Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) API.  It uses Bluetooth technology to warn users with installed supported contact tracing app on their phones if they have been recently in contact with someone who has been positively diagnosed to have the Covid-19.

Apple and Google said the project will be restricted to one public health app per country to get as many people using the software as possible. Initially, the StaySafe app was recognized by the tech giants as the official contact tracing app of the Philippines. Suddenly it went missing from the list of Exposure Notification supported apps.  The story then was StaySafe would be replaced by another app called StaySafe lite but until now there is no app endorsed by the government to support this contact tracing effort by Google and Apple. When you search Google App Store it would inform you that “There aren’t currently any contact tracing apps in your area that are endorsed by local or national authorities.” Why?

Per my last check, here are the contact tracing apps and online platforms that are fighting for the attention of users in the country.

StaySafe.ph
This is the official contact tracing app of the Philippines.  Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque calls it “a game-changer to the country’s Covid-19 response”.  As of this writing, it has more than 100,000 downloads from the Google Play Store.  It was accused of doing surveillance that even a former DICT official said it’s “borderline spyware.”

TraceFast
Developed by the same maker as StaySafe.ph, TraceFast does the same thing in collecting information, the app however is missing on the Google Play Store when I recently checked.

Safe Davao QR
A QR code system for Davao City residents and visitors that aims to improve the contact tracing capability of the city.

Bind360
Tracks and monitors movements of Binan residents to give updates on the Covid-19. It also encourages users to report suspicious health cases via hotline numbers listed in the app.

WeTrace
Said to be developed by “Cebu IT experts” the app aims to trace and monitor people with Covid-19 and those who are showing symptoms of the disease.

RC143
A Ph Red Cross contact tracing app. Uses geolocation that gives users information on their likely levels of exposure to Covid-19.

ENDCoV
A self-assessment app that would help you evaluate if you have been in contact with a Covid-19 positive person.

CLEAR or Citizen’s Logistics & Early Assessment Reporting Tool
Enables users to track their state of health and activates contact tracing when necessary.

COVCT
A contact tracing online platform based on the answers of the users about their condition.

Tanod Covid
A Department of Science and Technology (DOST) supported platform that encourages users to self report their condition directly to their local government units.

SafePass
An online platform for all-digital contact tracing, health declaration, incident management, and capacity management solution

Covid Kaya
Launched by the Department of Health (DOH), it aims to assist front liners during the pandemic. It automates data collection when front liners submit data thru the platform making contact tracing easier.
Of course, I’m sure I have missed a lot.  Schools and private institutions are also doing their part to develop contact tracing apps.

Here’s something to think about:
Taiwan flattened the Covid-19 infection curve by using tech-based contact tracing methods and aggressive quarantine rules. The Taiwan Center for Disease Control (TCDC) developed a national contact tracing platform to easily monitor those who have close contact with individuals diagnosed with Covid-19. South Korea also performed aggressive contact tracing and strict quarantine procedures to stop the spread of Covid-19. With the help of technology, South Korea has brought a major Covid-19 outbreak under control.

The deluge of contact tracing apps and platforms in the Philippines clearly shows that we have the talent and the capability to create an effective and usable contract tracing app or platform. The launch of different apps by local government units show a lack of coordination among local officials; what’s worse is that even government agencies are endorsing different apps to the users.

While StaySafe is the official contact tracing app, the DOH has endorsed Covid Kaya, the DOTr supported Traze, DOST backed the online platform Tanod Covid, and local government units have endorsed apps specific to their cities. Even the NBI has a different app preference, the Trace Together app, and the LRT-1 maintenance provider is also using its own contact tracing method the Kontra Covid now embedded in ikotMNL, its official app.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) invited tech companies to pitch for contact tracing apps in late September, the StaySafe announcement by Sec. Roque that we have an official contact tracing app was made on September 3.

We need a unified contact tracing strategy now while there is no vaccine yet for Covid-19. For the common good, government agencies need to talk to each other and decide which method, which app to use.

One more thing, in order for a contact tracing app to be effective, it needs to have as many users as possible. This is the reason why Apple and Google decided to work together and set aside their rivalry, as they saw the urgency of the situation. The official contact tracing app of the country failed because very few users downloaded and used it. That it had security flaws and privacy concerns was another huge factor why many decided not to use it.

 
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