Where are the most dangerous places to be during COVID-19?
Stats can show us the death rate in various countries around the world, but the discussion around the venues causing COVID-19 hotspots continues…
We’ve been told to stay a apart, wear face coverings and wash our hands
It is reasonably well understood by now, but the World Health Organisation says that COVID-19 is spread “from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person which can infect other people who touch them, then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.” It also stays in the air and there is a low chance of transmission through mucous membranes and eyes.
But now we need to research what conditions reduce or increase the chances of contamination
There are a lot of conversations around which venue types are more or less likely to become epicentres - causing ‘clusters’ - of COVID-19 transmission. As we know that the economic impact of the pandemic will be hard and long-lasting, and people want to avoid continued lockdowns, it’s important to carry out research on the specific places, or features of places, that appear to aid the spread of coronavirus most.
Is it pubs?
In the UK, pubs have been ‘blamed’ for causing a third of cases, as business minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC in early October. But this was based on a sample of just 400 cases. In Germany, pubs were allowed to reopen after arguing in court that there was no clear evidence that they were the cause of rising infection rates. If people follow guidelines around distancing and sanitisation, do pubs need to close?
Should we close gyms?
It is easy to see the potential for risk in places where people exercise, particularly vigorously, and also touch a lot of equipment. The value of gyms not just to local economies but to physical and mental health - a point raised frequently - mean it would be useful to identify if they are actually causing COVID-19 to spread more rapidly, and how much they are contributing to infection rates.
Are hairdressers & beauty salons to blame?
Sure, there is definitely meant to be a lot of touching that takes place within a beauty salon - there aren’t many treatments you can carry out at a two metre distance. But with the right precautions in place, are these venues any more risky than others? With screens, full plastic visors, gloves and increased hand washing and surface cleaning, plus limiting the number of customers at any one time, there are ways to reduce the risk in these types of business premises.
What about shops?
A big question at the moment around the world is: what counts as essential retail? Of course, diseases don’t particularly care what you are buying (and if you pick up a baby vest as you buy milk), but as governments are trying to stop people leaving their homes, it helps if you can limit what they can buy. It seems reasonable to assume that COVID spreads more easily in clothing shops where you touch and try on items. But can we prove that?
There are also clusters of COVID-19 cases linked to religious gatherings, because of the close proximity of people and traditions of hugging and shaking hands.
‘Backward contact tracing’ may have some of the answers
With few countires performing ‘backward contact tracing’, and only complex cases being investigated, it’s rare that we understand precisely where a person picked up their infection. South Korea has managed the outbreaks well through an approach that uses people’s credit card and smartphone whereabouts to identify everywhere they have been and then test hundreds of potential close contacts. However, such an approach raises privacy concerns. In South Korea, if a COVID-19 patient has visited a "multiuse facility" such as a gym, church or bar, that location is closed and disinfected.
Moai evaluates a risk factor for every exposure
We know diseases spread where people are in close proximity. But is there a non-invasive way to be more specific than that, and save local economies while saving lives?
With Moai, we will get a clearer picture of the combination of factors that could cause the highest spread of COVID-19. When people use our privacy-preserving contact tracing app within a venue, they will be asked to answer a quick and easy questionnaire. How crowded is the venue? What proportion of people are wearing masks? If they visit the same place more than once, their previous answers will be saved… but if anything has changed they can update the answers in the app. Moreover, the questionnaire can be updated as discoveries are made and hypotheses updated.
Combined with both (validated) positive and negative test results, this approach will help researchers understand what factors are causing the spread. So we can put the right precautions in place.
Moai can help hospitals be ready for incoming patients
While we don’t collect or store any personal data, Moai app users will also be asked (to consent) to share their age bracket and existing medical conditions to further aid the wider research project. If they have comorbidities or are in a more vulnerable age bracket, the app will use this to calculate their risk level. If someone they have encountered tests positive for COVID-19, they will be notified, asked to get tested, and assigned a risk level. By assigning risk levels this way, the technology can help prioritise people when it comes to testing and treatment, and hospitals can be ready for the appropriate levels of incoming patients.