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‘Contact Tracing” and the Reopening of America. What We Can Learn from China. - Barron's
As businesses around the country reopen, the discussion has already turned to contact tracingtracking where people go and who they come in contact withto prevent the spread of Covid-19. The question now: What it will look like in the U.S.?Contact tracing has become part of Chinas strategy to prevent another Covid-19 outbreak. Tracing aims to inform anyone who has come in contact with an infected person quickly, so they can be tested or self-quarantine. Tracing has been used in the past, but the issue is becoming more fraught with todays advanced technology. And it isnt clear if America will adopt a similar strategy to mitigate Covid-19 infections, or future outbreaks.American cities and businesses are slowly reopening. As they do workers have questions about health and safety. Management, for its part, says they are committed to keeping employees safe. Neither side wants to see an accelerating number of Covid-19 infections. The common playbook for reopening, or keeping open, business includes: more cleaning, shift staggering to minimize person to person interaction, temperature checks as well as contact tracing. Widespread contact tracing is under way in China. The system is driven from the top down, by both regional and local government officials. Whats more, China is employing a new organization of workers to parse through contact data, alerting people who have come in contact with an infected person. People in Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified, for instance, are given their own QR code. Those are the funny looking black and white patterns that are a modern derivative of black and white UPCs, ubiquitous on all consumer goods. The codes are scanned in when employees enter buildings or facilities, building a list of locations people have visited. One business with operations in Wuhan, familiar with the Chinese system, told Barrons the strategy probably wouldnt fly in the U.S. Still, Google parent Alphabet (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) are jointly developing APIs, short for application programming interfaces, that can run in the background of smartphones to do something similar to Chinas QR code system. The APIs are being requested by U.S. states as well as governments around the world. Apple and Google, for their part, are involved to ensure the apps work consistently. Both stress that no user identity is compromised and the system is designed to be opt-in. The Apple/Google solution is very advanced. Americans, however, are actually used to a very basic form of contact tracing: On customs form number 6059B. Thats the blue card travelers fill out when entering the country. People are supposed to list what they are bringing into the country. Importantly, there is a question about visiting farms and livestock. Thats to prevent the spread of damaging agricultural pests around the globe. The new Chinese contact tracing system also employs forms and questionnaires for travel within the country. The one benefit of a nationwide standard is businesses dont have to worry about internally developed solutions. Zebra Technologies (), maker of RFIDshort for radio frequency identificationas well as hand-held computing devices, says it is taking inquires from businesses looking to do a better job of tracking employees in a post-Covid world. —ZBRA Even if a national standard supplants company level initiatives there are still opportunities for businesses, like Zebra, to develop apps and analyze data. Barrons recently wrote positively about Zebra believing it can provide solutions for businesses in a post-Covid world that enhance its already solid operating franchise. Zebra stock is down about 5% year to date, performing a little better than the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same span. Write to Al Root at [email protected]