We have two major challenges facing our society. The first one is obvious: COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus with a severity and mortality that feels as random as Russian roulette. Because of this, Americans face an additional challenge in the form of reduced confidence in people gathering in large enough groups to allow basic business models to function.
The only responsible thing for the government to do in the early stages of this global pandemic has been to issue orders that limit social interaction. Medically, that is a sound decision, but economically, it’s a devastating one. Whole industries have been put within a whisper of insolvency. We need to, and can, change that.
We are many months away from having a coronavirus vaccine and while our knowledge of therapeutics for treating COVID-19 patients is increasing, the underlying fact is that there is still so much we do not know. As the government allows us to reopen for business, we need to face some realities about market forces and consumer confidence.
The first step in bringing back consumer confidence to gather in populated spaces is to admit what we are facing economically if we do not address people’s justified fears.
Take the hospitality industry, for instance. Restaurants operate on very thin margins, and the typical restaurant business model will not work at 25 percent, 50 percent, or even 75 percent capacity. Most restaurants require full occupancy during certain critical shifts to make a profit.
Right now, you would have to be out of your mind to blindly go into a crowded place where people have to remove their face masks to eat and drink. Under the current circumstances, you could be seated next to an asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus without either of you knowing it. That’s flat-out scary.
In order for consumers to gather in public places again, we have to reduce the risk of public gathering to a level where people feel as safe as one can short of a miracle vaccine. The quick answer is we need to ramp up testing on a national scale.
There are two types of examinations available right now: virology and serology assessments. Neither test is available on a widespread basis yet, meaning that testing is not yet accessible to every citizen, every day, for free.
But these tests likely will be available soon enough. Let us assume that we will have standardized, meaningful testing available in the very near future. We then have the challenge of translating those results to making people feel safe enough to gather.
We have the technology to do that. What is needed is a smartphone app that can take the upload of testing information and issue the phone owner a QR code that classifies their testing results. Several countries are doing something similar, most notably in China. As citizens emerged from quarantine, one of the methods they used for mobility was a QR app that was scanned in public places for admittance. If you traveled on a train or an airplane outside of the city you had to show your QR code on your smartphone to a screener.
But there is a major flaw in the Chinese model. The way to have a QR code issued to a person was done through answering questions about whether or not they had symptoms of COVID-19 or had been in contact with people who either were infected or also exhibited indicators of infection. That system does not have third-party verification of health.
What is needed in the U.S. is a similar app with independent verification from a test. It can issue a timestamp on your QR code. The virology test could be for 14 days, in line with the virus’s incubation period. If you tested negative, you would get a green (non-infectious) QR code for two weeks. After the two-week period, your QR code would expire and you would need to be tested again. If you start exhibiting symptoms within your approved period, you should voluntarily avoid close contact with others and get tested as soon as possible again. A flaw with this system is that you theoretically can test negative but still have the virus or contract it within the 14-day period. It is not a perfect process. There is no magic formula.
Although there is still some investigation that needs to be done, it appears that if you test positive on the serology side, you have the antibodies in your system. You have the ability to venture into public places with the confidence of knowing you have some degree of immunity. This condition would also render you a green QR pass, probably for a minimum of many months since you can no longer infect others. Unfortunately, right now we do not yet know if the serology information renders you immune or noninfectious. If this novel coronavirus behaves like other coronaviruses we can assume that having been infected and recovered will give you some degree of immunity.
If you test positive for the virus you would receive a red QR code that would remain in effect until you pass two more COVID-19 tests within a medically approved period of time that assures the public you are no longer infectious.
This app should also have the ability to trace where a person has been so that others who have been in close proximity may be alerted if an individual contracts the virus. We are going to need that when we have more and potentially deadlier outbreaks.
One of the biggest questions that come up about using this technology is about privacy. That’s why we should make it voluntary to participate, but mandatory if you wish to enter spaces like restaurants where social distancing is difficult. That way, restaurant owners can assure their customers, to as much of a degree as is possible, that everybody inside is as safe as we know how to make them.
Because of the sensitive nature of information being transmitted to and by this app, cybersecurity is absolutely paramount. There is also a question of who processes that data, stores it, and pays for the development of the app. The good news is that I have spoken to coders who say this is a relatively straightforward piece of software engineering.
None of this is cheap. But the cost of shuttering businesses and displacing tens of millions from the workplace is catastrophic.