Artificial intelligence is also tracking the spatial patterns of the epidemic. A Canadian company called BlueDot collects multilingual news reports and data from official public health databases to predict the potential of future outbreaks. Researchers from Harvard Medical School gather authoritative information plus social media data to explore the geographical trends of the disease.
However, Chinese officials need more accurate locations of potential virus spreaders.
Telecommunication companies in China announced a feature that generates a list of recently visited provinces when subscribers text a hotline. Rail stations such as the one in Yiwu required passengers to show their travel history from the hotline before boarding a train, screening out people who had been to Hubei province.
Some municipal governments have “innovative” methods other than technological approaches. Starting Feb. 7, at least three Chinese cities including Hangzhou, Ningbo and Sanya pulled fever and cough drugs off pharmacy shelves so patients with such symptoms would have to visit doctors at hospitals. Some officials from Hebei province in northern China turned “neighbour against neighbour” by offering 1,000 RMB (about $190) to residents for each person from Wuhan they reported.
Outside of mainland China, the Hong Kong government has issued tracking wristbands to families returning from Hubei province. These ensure the Department of Health is notified if the wearer leaves their home during a 14-day quarantine period.
Similar strategies have been used in Taiwan, where smartphones have been assigned to notify police if patients are not quarantined at home. Whether the monitoring technologies turned home quarantine to “house arrest” remains debatable.
Tracking down patients is troublesome enough, but whether their sensitive information is released depends on local administrations.
Japanese authorities, however, are in disagreement on disclosing travel data on coronavirus patients. The Japanese Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry provided no details. However, after the driver of a bus that transported tourists from Wuhan became infected with COVID-19, the Nara Prefectural Government shared the locations the bus had visited.
Some U.S. states are in line with the Japanese Health Ministry and make patient privacy a priority. On Feb. 5, Ohio passed a new protocol protecting patients’ places of origin while their cases are under investigation. Florida has a similar state law that prevents public access to information about suspected patients.
While patient information disclosure practices vary from one administration to another, laws are in place to guard against improper management of sensitive information.
A notice from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on Feb. 9 clearly states that personal information such as “names, ages, identity card numbers, telephone numbers, household addresses and other such information” may not be used for purposes other than “epidemic control and disease prevention.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also posted a bulletin to remind health-care workers that information about “an identifiable patient” may not be disclosed to the media or the public without “the patient’s written authorization” except in special circumstances.
With strict enforcement of privacy law, wide disease prevention education and proper location information disclosure, it is hoped that patient information leaks will diminish in China, and patient privacy will be better protected during an epidemic outbreak.