Battling a pandemic as serious as COVID-19 requires drastic responses, and political leaders and public-health officials have turned to some of the most radical strategies available. What began with a lockdown of one city in China quickly expanded to the quarantine of an entire province, and now entire countries including Italy. While social isolation and curfews are among the most effective ways to break the chain of viral transmission, some health experts say it’s possible these draconian measures didn’t have to become a global phenomenon. “If health officials could have taken action earlier and contained the outbreak in Wuhan, where the first cases were reported, the global clampdown could have been at a much more local level,” says Richard Kuhn, a virologist and professor of science at -Purdue University.
The key to early response lies in looking beyond centuries-old strategies and incorporating methods that are familiar to nearly every industry from banking to retail to manufacturing, but that are still slow to be adopted in public health. Smartphone apps, data analytics and artificial intelligence all make finding and treating people with an infectious disease far more efficient than ever before.
“The connectivity we have today gives us ammunition to fight this pandemic in ways we never previously thought possible,” says Alain Labrique, director of the Johns Hopkins University Global -mHealth Initiative. And yet, to date, the global public–health response to COVID-19 has only scratched the surface of what these new containment tools offer. Building on them will be critical for ensuring that the next outbreak never gets the chance to explode from epidemic to global pandemic.
Consider how doctors currently detect new cases of COVID-19. Many people who develop the hallmark symptoms of the -disease—fever, cough and shortness of breath—-physically visit a primary-care doctor, a health care provider at an urgent-care center or an emergency room. But that’s the last thing people potentially infected with a highly contagious disease should do. Instead, health officials are urging them to connect remotely via an app to a doctor who can triage their symptoms while they’re still at home.
“The reality is that clinical brick-and-mortar medicine is rife with the possibility of virus exposure,” says Dr. Jonathan Wiesen, founder and chief medical officer of MediOrbis, a telehealth company. “The system we have in place is one in which everyone who is at risk is potentially transmitting infection. That is petrifying.” Instead, people could call a telemedicine center and describe their symptoms to a doctor who can then determine whether they need COVID-19 -testing—without exposing anyone else.