Contact tracing is an essential part of containing COVID-19, but if the virus spreads through the air, then knowing with whom a person was in direct contact may not be enough to keep the disease from spreading. Dallas-based MeshTek Labs has developed a technology that can help you know if one has shared space with an infected person, even if they never made contact with that person.
Cell phones are continually connecting, allowing the Google-Apple exposure application or other contact tracing technology to notify someone if they were in prolonged contact with an infected individual. But if airborne spread is a reality, then the disease could spread from person to person even if they (and their cell phones) were never in close contact. There is evidence that the virus can remain in the air for up to three hours and on surfaces for days, meaning person to person (or even phone to phone) contact tracing may not be enough.
MeshTek’s solution is a plug-in device that connects with all cell phones within 100 feet that come into an area, such as a public bathroom or airport terminal. If someone whose phone connected to MeshTek’s plug -n becomes infected, then the technology can notify anyone who has been in that space within a specific time frame. Suppose infected person A walks into a bathroom, and person B walks in the same bathroom 10 minutes later. In that case, the technology could notify person B that they may have been exposed when Person A is confirmed positive. When Person A checks in with the public health authority and gives consent, everyone who shared space with them over the previous two weeks could be notified through an app.
“As COVID19 viruses’ ‘surf’ the air and a variety of surfaces in heavily used public spaces, digital contact tracing solutions can help track virus ‘outbreaks’ in these spaces by simply installing MeshTek plug and play devices. The device does not need any configuration or any network, providing ultimate privacy protection and data security,” said Swapnil Bora CEO of MeshTek Labs via release.
MeshTek has been featured on Shark Tank and won the endorsement of Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban. “The MeshTek Labs solution solves an important aspect of the problem of COVID-19 airborne and fomite exposure detection and transmission,” said Cuban via release. “In addition, testing and exposure detection is the key to keeping workers, students, shoppers, and the general population safe and jumpstarting the economy.”
Companies and municipalities can set how long they would like the devices to record which phones connect. Epidemiologists working with MeshTek have suggested that 30 minutes is the right window for space like a public restroom. Bora emphasized that the phones are not connecting to any network, and no data is stored.
The technology is just part of the puzzle, though. It is dependent upon individuals allowing their phones to receive and give off the key, which most do when they set up their phone’s operating system. Individuals must also have some sort of COVID-19 exposure app, such as the Google-Apple version. Bora says states and municipalities will soon roll out a similar app to notify those who have been in contact with an infected individual via phone keys. The infected individual must also agree to have their contacts (in person and via phone keys) notified. If all of that falls in place, the system can replace the cumbersome interviews and calls made by in-person contact tracers.
There have been suggestions that GPS technology could solve the same problem, but for most people, GPS on their cell phone is not accurate enough to let someone know if they were in the same space as an infected person. Multi-story buildings and densely populated areas like downtown often cause GPS to lose accuracy. MeshTek also has a solution that could communicate with nearby phones and give GPS a specific location key so that their phone will know exactly where they are or which floor they were on. A bathroom in an office building or store in a mall that previously caused GPS confusion would have an exact location, allowing contact tracing to function correctly.