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Puerto Rico business groups, towns seek mass adoption of tech to track, contain Covid-19

By on May 12, 2020

(Screen capture of How COVID-19 Can Spread in a Community)

Say move is in response to ineffective central government action as island economy reopens

SAN JUAN — Citing the lack of will by the Puerto Rico central government to set up a working Covid-19 contact tracing system, the island’s private sector and municipalities are undertaking their own projects to track and contain the novel coronavirus as the government eases the two-month-old curfew/lockdown restrictions and allows a growing number of businesses to reopen.

Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce (PRCC) President José E. Ledesma Fuentes told Caribbean Business that his organization is leading an initiative to set up a mostly privately funded Covid-19 contact tracing platform that can be used by the island’s businesses to protect their employees and customers from the potentially deadly virus.

Ledesma said this endeavor has the backing of other local business groups such as the Puerto Rico Hoteliers Association, the Made in Puerto Rico Products Association, the Southern Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, and the Western Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce.

An interdisciplinary committee has been set up to study various contact tracing technologies and make recommendations, Ledesma said, noting that its members hail from the technological, medical, educational and legal sectors as well as business and commerce. He declined to name them, saying they have asked for confidentiality given that some of them also serve in the government’s Covid-19 task forces.

“We anticipate that in the next few days—no later than a week—there will be recommendations that can be implemented, with respect to existing platforms that have been proposed. There is a high level of urgency for this to be executed quickly,” he said, adding that the interdisciplinary committee is “developing a roadmap for what is needed in a contact tracing solution.”

“We will then enter into a process of evaluation of the proposed solutions and how they may be implemented effectively or how they can mesh with each other,” Ledesma continued. “We would be the first place in the world in which the private sector has had to do this. In places such as Singapore and South Korea the government implemented the contact tracing platforms. We have been calling for this here since February. It’s unfortunate that the [central] government is not doing this, because then we would not have to do this.”

Municipalities take the lead

In fact, the municipality of Villalba, which implemented a contact tracing system last month, is in the process of offering workshops to 40 other municipalities to implement their own systems, the municipality’s chief epidemiologist, Fabiola Cruz López, said Monday.

She said the Villalba model had been presented to Puerto Rico Health Secretary Lorenzo González, who said he would consider its implementation islandwide.

Last month, Villalba Mayor Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz signed a collaborative agreement with the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT) and the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) to assist the southern mountain town with expert scientific and technological assistance to establish an effective contact tracing and disease surveillance system.

PRPHT Executive Director José F. Rodríguez Orengo said his team of experts would be available to other municipalities interested in implementing the Villalba system.

González reportedly acknowledged last week that the agency’s tracing program only contacts Covid-19-infected people’s immediate family members and does not notify other people who might have been in contact with them. He said, moreover, that only people testing positive on the molecular Covid-19 test are being contacted, leaving 32 percent of suspected cases untraced.

Contact tracing key in Covid-19 fight

Contact tracing has been used aggressively by such countries as Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand to control developing Covid-19 outbreaks. Once someone has been confirmed to be infected, such as through a positive Covid-19 test, contact tracers try to track down others who have had recent prolonged exposure to that person when they may have been infectious.

Healthcare workers then make an effort to reach out to every one of those contacts to tell them they may have been exposed and provide them instructions on what to do next. That may include telling them about possible symptoms or directing them to self-isolate.

Contact tracing is not new, as it was used during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, as well as in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)- associated coronavirus outbreak in 2003. It is also used to fight sexually transmitted and other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Given that contact tracing is such a labor-intensive process, it works best when there are low levels of infection in a community, medical experts say.

Given the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic, mobile apps have been developed that can enable digital contact tracing on a large scale. Such apps, which use low energy Bluetooth signals to notify users if they have been in close contact with someone who later reports positive for Covid-19, could pinpoint who needs to be in quarantine and who doesn’t, making them key to easing up social distancing measures.

Businesses to pool resources

Ledesma said that businesses, particularly the largest corporations, would pool financial resources to pay for such technology. He said this would avoid burdening smaller businesses and customers with the costs.

“This is the only way to do this for now. There are federal funds that have been identified that can be used for contact tracing, but this would take a little longer and they would be used for [system] maintenance costs,” he said. “What we want is a complete adoption of this type of platform, but to have businesses with high sales volumes to be the ones who to make the contributions to get this running.”

Nevertheless, the contact tracing platform would be open to all businesses and people in Puerto Rico, whether participating companies are paying for the system or not, Ledesma said.

“The objective is that everyone has it in their cellphone and that every business has a dashboard for real time tracking of people who enter their business and who might have Covid-19,” he said.

While use of such applications would be voluntary, Ledesma acknowledged that businesses may deny admission to people who don’t have the apps on their cellphones and don’t have the green code indicating they have not been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

“If a person has Covid-19, they must be at home, at a hospital or a care center by executive order,” he said. “If a person is determined to be a risk, the business can deny admission to guarantee the safety of its employees and other customers.”

Ledesma said a contact tracing platform is urgently needed to enable the reopening of key centers of commerce such as shopping centers without triggering additional outbreaks. Such technology would also facilitate the return of children to schools, enabling parents to return to work, he said.  

The fact that working parents have been taking care of homebound children “has also affected our productivity. We want to ensure that at least starting in January we can begin in-person classes. I see the upcoming semester will also be affected due to the slowness of the tests being done and the lack of contact tracing by the government,” he said. “We want these measures to be taken so in-person classes begin in August, but it is too ambitious to expect this to be resolved by August. The worst case is that we have to wait until January. That is why these contact tracing and widespread testing measures are so important—to make sure people with confirmed cases are not in contact with healthy people.”

Ledesma is confident that the private-sector initiative will move the central government to adopt contact tracing technology on a massive scale.

“The government has the most access to information and should ideally be the one implementing this solution for the benefit of all. But without that collaboration, it has to be voluntary,” he said.

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