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Should Utilities Implement a Contact Tracing Program Post-Pandemic?

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The Covid-19 pandemic has spawned its own vocabulary of phrases and terms used to describe the disease and its effect on society and individuals. Some are new and others old. Contact tracing belongs to the latter category. A strategy to contain the spread of a disease by identifying and quarantining an infected person’s contacts, contact tracing first came into prominence during the 1950s to limit the spread of smallpox and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), like syphilis.  

In recent times, federal and state governments have released plans to roll out massive contact tracing programs to contain the spread and recurrence of another Covid-19 pandemic. The government-run programs will track locations and movement for an infected person, going back 48 hours, after the moment of their first diagnosis. All identified contacts with the infected person will be asked to isolate or self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent the risk of further transmission. 

However, government programs can only be effective in coordination with private partnerships.   

The Electricity Subsector Council (ESCC), which acts as a liaison between the federal government and utility companies, has released a set of basic planning considerations to help organizations in the electricity sector develop contact tracing plans in their companies. The considerations are steps that begin with defining close contacts for an infected person to implementing tech solutions and working with government authorities to identify and isolate potential cases. 

Is a Contact Tracing Program Necessary? 

At first glance, line workers at utilities might seem to be the most obvious candidates for contact tracing programs at utilities. This is mainly because they have a wide range of interactions, from colleagues to utility customers and men on the street. 

But Covid-19 has transformed the workplace. As working from home becomes the new normal and mobile workforces become more common, the matrix of interactions for a regular utility employee will become more diverse. In turn, this is expected to multiply operational risks during a pandemic. Tactics like isolating employees in a given facility are short-term fixes and not long-term strategies. As such, if pandemics become a common recurrence in the future, the question for utilities is not whether to implement a contact tracing strategy but when to do so.  

In that respect, guidelines provided by the ESCC are useful for utilities taking the first step. The considerations are broadly in line with the contact tracing process as it was implemented earlier. There is one vital difference between then and now: the use of technology solutions as a potential implementation tool for contact tracing. 

Back in the 1950s, when tech solutions were not common, contact tracing was mostly manual and consisted of questioning individuals and relying on their recollection of interactions. In its reinvented avatar, contact tracing may become a hybrid process that combines human judgement with tech solutions like smartphone apps. These apps can be used for a variety of purposes, from enforcing social distancing to verifying the location of interactions. An IDC analyst estimates the market for digital contact tracing apps is worth $4.3 billion. 

A Balancing Act 

If they choose to implement contact tracing apps, utilities will have to balance concerns related to privacy and costs with an evaluation of associated risks associated with a pandemic shutdown. 

While they may offer convenience and speed, contact tracing apps add legal and privacy wrinkles. Any technology that tracks individual interactions and locations will run into hot water with privacy advocates, who view the increasing encroachment of technology in society as an infringement on personal liberty. The case for contact tracing apps becomes even more complicated because they come equipped with government authority to enforce quarantines. For example, Iceland’s contact tracing app implementation consists of forcing potential infections into a 14-day quarantine or paying a fine of $1750. Private organizations who have implemented contact tracing have yet to to turn on the privacy spigot. For example, computer maker HP’s chief human resources officer Tracy Keogh said tech-enabled contact tracing is “pretty invasive”. 

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