COVID-19 contact tracing ‘absolutely essential’; wearable TraceTogether tokens to be rolled out in June

COVID-19 contact tracing ‘absolutely essential’; wearable TraceTogether tokens to be rolled out in June

Trace Together app
(Photo: Hanidah Amin)

SINGAPORE: Good contact tracing is “absolutely essential” to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday (Jun 8), as he gave more details on a wearable device that authorities plan to roll out this month.  

The first batch of the contact tracing devices, or TraceTogether tokens, will be delivered in the second half of June. They will operate and function “exactly the same way” the TraceTogether app does on a smartphone.

The ability to quickly identify COVID-19 cases and those whom they were in close contact with has become even more crucial now that the "circuit breaker" has been lifted, said Dr Balakrishnan at a multi-ministry task force press conference.

READ: Recent rise in COVID-19 community cases due to 'proactive' screening, situation remains 'under control'

He also noted that peak viral load occurs early in the disease, and there are cases of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 transmission.

“That makes it all the more vital that we identify both patients and close contacts as soon as possible. I can't emphasise enough the need for quick identification, and this is where the digital tools come in," he added.

NOT A TRACKING DEVICE: VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN

It was said in Parliament on Friday that the Government is developing a portable and wearable contact tracing device.

Addressing privacy concerns that have surfaced, Dr Balakrishnan said: “So here's where I need to emphasise, and repeatedly emphasise, it is not a tracking device. It is not an electronic tag as some Internet commentaries have fretted about. In particular, and here to be technical, there is no GPS chip on the device. There isn't even any Internet or mobile telephone connectivity."

Without a GPS chip, the device cannot track an individual’s location and movements. Without Internet connectivity, there is “no possibility” of data being uploaded “without the participation and consent of the user”, said the minister.

Like the TraceTogether app, the device only captures Bluetooth proximity data, he added.

“And that data never leaves the device or the phone. It is encrypted. It is stored for up to 25 days and automatically deleted.” 

The data will only be used by the Ministry of Health (MOH) if an individual is diagnosed with COVID-19, and “only a very limited restricted team of contact tracers” will have access to the data to reconstruct an activity map to identify the full range of interactions that the patient might have had. 

“It's worth emphasising that there isn't one big, giant centralised database. In fact, the data is decentralised and encrypted on phones and on devices, and only uploaded, if it is positive,” said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister.

“Again I want to emphasise, there is no electronic tagging. There is no geolocation tracking. This is only purely focused on Bluetooth proximity data, and only used for contact tracing.” 

READ: Singapore reports 386 new COVID-19 cases, including 2 community infections

Only a "small number" of authorised personnel will have access to the data for contact tracing purposes, said Smart Nation Singapore, adding that public sector data protection rules will apply to the data held by MOH.

"Preserving and upholding privacy remains our key priority as we continue to improve these digital solutions to meet our needs and circumstances," it said.

All the officers involved are also covered by the Official Secrets Act, Dr Balakrishnan added, and audits will take place to make sure no data leakage occurs.

“Remember, ultimately, the real test of the pudding is whether we can shorten the time from identification of a patient or close contact to isolation, bring down the effective reproduction number of this epidemic, and also reassure people that we are getting the balance right between protecting public health, and protecting personal privacy," he told reporters.

“I believe it is possible to protect both, and we're going to do so in a manner which is open and transparent.” 

While it used to take contact tracers two to three days of “intensive laborious work” to reconstruct an activity map for each patient, Dr Balakrishnan said that with digital tools, it now takes them less than a day to go through the process of identifying the patient and issuing the necessary quarantine orders. 

HIGHER ADOPTION RATE NEEDED

The tokens will likely be distributed through community centres.

Responding to questions about whether use of the devices will be made mandatory, Dr Balakrishnan noted that the TraceTogether app currently has a 25 per cent adoption rate. 

The adoption rate “mathematically is still too low” and should ideally be above 75 per cent, he added.

“Do I believe that we can increase it further on a voluntary basis? I believe we can," he said. 

"We need to educate, we need to reassure. We need to demonstrate to people the value that comes from downloading and using it for yourself, that you are helping to protect the community, you're protecting your own family, and even for yourself.” 

READ: Safeguards needed before travel between Singapore and Malaysia can resume: Lawrence Wong 

Visitors to Singapore will also be encouraged to participate in the national contact tracing programme, Dr Balakrishnan said, when asked about whether travellers to Singapore will need to wear the devices. 

“We would also want others in our midst, visitors to also be using (the tokens and app) and participating in the same programme, because that will enable us again to come back to the fundamental which is identify as quickly as possible the close contacts," he added.

“And the other element ... is not only people whom a patient may have transmitted it to, but we're also interested in where the source of that transmission chain may have originated.”

Watch the full news conference and Q&A session: 

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Source: CNA/hw(gs)

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