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Privacy Considerations for COVID-19 Digital Contact Tracing

Generally, contact tracing refers to an effort by public health officials to identify individuals with whom a patient who has tested positive for an infectious disease has been in close proximity. Public health officials will inform these individuals that they were exposed to a contagious patient and encourage them to monitor their symptoms and quarantine for a period of time.

In response to COVID-19, governments around the world have explored using digital contact tracing, by which smartphone users download an application (app) to enable public health officials to track infected individuals’ contacts. In addition, private sector companies are exploring how digital technologies can be used for contact tracing on employees as they reenter the workplace.

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The Toughest Problem Set: Navigating Regulatory and Operational Challenges on University Campuses

When the academic year ended in the spring of 2020, many US university students assumed that a return to campus would be straightforward this fall. However, it is now clear—at least in the near term—that a return to the old “normal” will not be possible. Some universities have concluded that their best course of action is to offer only distanced learning for the time being. Other universities, however, are welcoming students back onto campus, and into residence and dining halls, classrooms, labs and libraries. Each of those universities is developing its own approach to retain the benefits of on-campus student life while reducing risk to the greatest extent possible; nevertheless, some have had to adjust their plans to pivot to remote learning when faced with clusters of positive cases on campus. One thing is clear: The fall semester will be a real-time, national learning laboratory.

Because widespread, rapid testing remains unavailable in many locations, universities have had to find innovative ways to implement testing, tracing and isolation protocols to reduce the risk of transmission among students, faculty and staff. There is no one perfect protocol—all universities are in unchartered waters. But there are a few key components university administrators may want to consider and address:

  • Apps: Symptom checkers, contact tracing and other apps can be useful in identifying and focusing attention on the onset of symptoms, fostering accountability and identifying high-risk exposure. In considering whether to incorporate apps and related technologies into their back to campus plans, universities must anticipate and address considerations related to privacy, security and reporting of results, and will need to consider how such apps are hosted (for example, through Apple’s App Store) and whether any third parties will have access to the personal data collected.
  • Contact Tracing: In addition to the issues noted above, contact tracing efforts also present other challenges, including managing reliability, over/under inclusiveness and liability (for both false positives and false negatives). In addition, the effectiveness of contact tracing is closely tied to its speed and comprehensiveness; to implement a successful contact tracing program, universities will need to balance effectiveness with privacy and autonomy.
  • CLIA: The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act (CLIA) will require that many of the tests be performed in CLIA-certified (and state-licensed, where required) space. Universities will need to consider how best to handle building out additional compliant space, creating additional “point of care” testing or specimen collection sites if needed to test students, faculty and staff where they are and validating the test(s) being offered. Tests that are not yet validated likely cannot be used to return patient-specific results that inform student and staff care or be used to prompt “official” testing.
  • FDA/Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA): In general, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expects developers of molecular, antigen and (in the case of test kit manufacturers) antibody tests to obtain an EUA. However, under FDA enforcement policies during the pandemic, many of these same tests—if validated and offered with appropriate agency-mandated disclaimers—can be offered before [...]

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