Choosing The Best Contact Tracing Method to Protect Employee Health and Privacy

After the initial ravaging first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are starting to return to their physical workplaces. As they adjust to doing business with the coronavirus still circulating, there’s more talk about protecting employee welfare and privacy.

Different methods to protect and monitor employees are being deployed. From collecting medical data (such as body temperature) to tracing employee movement to traditional and automated contact tracing, companies are struggling to reconcile protecting both their business operations and employee health.

To help you decide which method works best for you, here’s a look into all the aspects of employee tracing you need to consider to protect both employee trust and health as your business gets back on its feet.  

How Contact Tracing Works

Contact tracing is a method used in public health to identify all people who’ve come into close contact with a person infected with a particular disease. 

The idea is to quickly identify the chain of disease transmission and isolate all potential cases of infection so that further spread is prevented.  

Shortcomings of Traditional Contract Tracing

While contact tracing is not a new method—in fact, it was used for the ebola outbreak in 2014–2016 and SARS in 2015, and is routinely used for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis—COVID-19 has taken things to a new level.

Standard, or manual, contact tracing costs a lot. It takes time and requires personnel onboarding. According to Crystal Watson, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, there are around 30,000 trained contract tracers in the US right now. To keep COVID-19 at a manageable level, she says we’d need around 100,000 of them.

And while all these people would be trained to treat people’s privacy as a top priority, their onboarding would be too lengthy for us to keep ahead of  this particular disease. Plus, the human margin of error inherent in traditional manual contact tracing means it doesn’t necessarily guarantee completeness, legitimacy, or accuracy.

Collecting Medical Data and Privacy Infringement

Of course, contact tracing brings with it an entire set of concerns that need to be addressed. The first one is privacy protection. 

While increased monitoring in the workplace would help companies determine potential and confirmed cases of infection and quickly alarm others who’ve been in contact, it raises the question of precision and misuse. 

Will employee health information be used solely for the purpose of curbing the outbreak, and how can we be sure?

In the first months of the pandemic alone, we saw new means of surveillance being deployed, most notably in China and Israel. 

Chinese citizens had their smartphones monitored and were required to report their body temperature and medical status.

Some companies in the US and elsewhere are relying on this strategy: if they know who among their employees is the suspect, they reason that they’d be able to avoid an outbreak. 

And they’re not wrong. Monitoring body temperature can help identify cases of infection, but it brings up a bigger issue: if not done right, it creates cracks in employee trust.

Failings of Facial Recognition Systems

Another popular way of monitoring employees is facial recognition. This method always raises the question of racial profiling and discrimination.

It has been shown many times, most comprehensively by a US National Institute of Standards and Technology study, that face recognition systems show 10 to 100 times more false positives for Asians, African-Americans, and Native Americans than Caucasians. Which is to say, face recognition systems currently in use are not reliable and even racially biased.

While it could help stop the pandemic, harvesting biometric data en masse is not yet regulated well enough for us to fully rely on it. However, we need to trace the contacts of infected people and help prevent the virus from spreading. How, then, can this be done without privacy infringement? For now—through automated contact tracing.  

Automated Contact Tracing: Best Shot We’ve Got

Automated contact tracing might prove more efficient than manual tracing, not only at faster identification of infection cases, but also at protecting the privacy and anonymity of employees. However, its drawbacks must also be considered.

First of all, enforcing apps and advanced tech gadgets on employees comes with inherent socio-economic and technology literacy biases. It requires people to have access to smartphones or separate contact tracing devices, as well as the literacy and knowledge to use these apps. Instead, it is the employers who should take the responsibility of providing simple devices that do all the tracing for the employees.

In addition, whenever tracing is mentioned, we need to consider anonymity and privacy. While automated contact tracing helps halt the spread of infection and protect health, employers also need to make sure no personal data gets stored unless absolutely necessary.

Instead of focusing on who met whom scenarios, we should anonymize that data and monitor only the proximity of tracking devices, not based on actual GPS location, but on their physical proximity, using data from cellular networks. 

This means that if Employee X in your daycare center gets tested positive for COVID-19, then and only then should you retrieve the information from their tracking device to determine which other devices carried by their fellow employees have been in close contact. Then, you identify the employees and inform them about the potential infection—without identifying them to each other. 

Another aspect of workplace contact tracing is looking at it from a legal and ethical standpoint. You should track employees only during their working hours; this way you show respect, build trust, and get the buy-in more easily. No employee should be tracked 24/7. 

The key here is to properly educate your employees on how tracking is done and which information is stored. Only by fully addressing all their concerns can you hope to get the green light. Otherwise, you risk resistance, legal action, and workplace absenteeism.

Many experts have already said that the coronavirus pandemic will last well into 2021, when the first vaccines are expected to be rolled out. This means we will all have to change our habits in the workplace, and managers will need to be the ones championing this adaptation. 

As subsequent waves of the pandemic arrive, businesses will need to be able to continue production and preserve workplace health. Contact tracing will be a handy tool to strike the balance between both considerations and bring some of the old normalcy into the new normalcy—while avoiding lockdowns.  

If you’re considering bringing employees back to the workplace but you’re not sure how to best keep them safe and healthy, get in touch with us so that we can talk about your specific needs and see how POM Tracer can help your organization navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

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