In 2020, the most commented subject is COVID-19. According to the Brazillian Ministry of Health’s website: “[COVID-19] is a disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which has a clinical spectrum ranging from asymptomatic infections to severe conditions”. It is a flu syndrome, which, unlike the others to which we are already accustomed, has a high contamination and mortality. It is a disease easily transmitted by contact, direct or indirect, with the fluid or secretion of an infected person.
Unfortunately, we still do not have vaccines for COVID-19, but there are some measures that can be taken to prevent a contaminated person from transmitting the disease to others. Since contamination is made through contact with fluid/secretion from an infected person, the easiest ways of contamination are to be less than a meter away from a contaminated person — since, when talking, sneezing, or coughing, the person ends up expelling droplets of fluid or secretions that can reach other people — or touching any object or surface that a contaminated person may have infected. Objects can also be infected through the fluid droplets of the contaminated person. The droplet is heavier than air and ends up “falling” on surfaces and objects that are close to the place that the contaminated person sneezed or coughed.
Consequently, the ways to avoid contamination are: avoiding places with many people circling; avoiding getting too close to people without masks; avoiding contact with objects of collective use; and always ensuring hand hygiene (to prevent a contaminated hand from coming into contact with eyes, nose, and mouth).
At the very beginning of the pandemic, the approach adopted to prevent the spread of the disease was the closing of cities, to reduce the movement of people on the streets (except for essential cases, such as markets, pharmacy, and hospitals). Later, cities defined a set of guidelines to resume activities in the work environment, following the guidelines defined by the ordinance of the Brazillian Federal Government.
In the city where I live, Campinas, we follow the guidelines defined by Plano São Paulo. The São Paulo State’s plan defined that the return of economic activities will be done in four phases (red, orange, yellow, and green). Each of these phases dictates which types of activities can be resumed and which care should be taken — for example, in the Yellow Phase, restaurants with reduced occupancy and hours were allowed to reopen, in open areas or well-ventilated places.
The phases are defined according to the indicators of the criteria of the capacity of the health system: average occupancy rate of coronavirus-exclusive ICU beds, number of new hospitalizations in the same period and the number of deaths due to COVID-19.
According to the values of current indicators, Campinas is in the Yellow Phase. At this stage, some services have already been able to have their activities resumed, however, some rules must be followed so that there is a safe return of activities, ensuring that the indicators, at least, remain at the same levels.
The rules are defined according to the type of activity, whether it is essential to people’s lives — such as activities of the food sector, healthcare, and transportation — or not — such as entertainment activities. However, some of the restrictions are applied to all activities, such as: ensuring the minimum distance of one meter between people; restricting the number of people in the same place; mandatory use of masks; and restricting the access of people with some symptom of the disease, such as fever, for example.
To apply and ensure all these rules, the use of technology can be of great value. Therefore, we list some of the examples of the use of technologies to reduce the contagion in the return of activities. In addition to ensuring compliance with the rules, technologies can still generate information that can be very useful in the analysis of the collective health of employees of institutions and other people who circulate through them.
One of the first actions of many companies during this pandemic was to start full home office (full-time remote work) srategies, because it allows people to avoide contact between themselves and facilitates social distancing of all its employees. Many of these organizations will, most likely, keep this system after the end of the pandemic, since it is being very well received, both by employees as well as the companies.
However, in this work style, something that can be complicated is to effectively know where employees are every day, whether they are at home or in the office. Therefore, companies can adopt an online check-in system, in which the employees can register, right at the start of their workday, where they will be during that day, and may also include absences and breaks, such as lunch, travel, or vacation time. This idea could also already be integrated into the company’s time clock system, making it easier to control the hours worked by each employee.
To identify workers with suspicion or symptoms of COVID-19, an integrated system can be used, on a web or mobile platform, in which employees can make self-notifications of suspicioun cases. This system can be automatically integrated into a health care system, which can be notified of the case through digital means, such as email, Whatsapp message, or even text message.
Through this type of system, the company can better control which employees have the disease and, if they have had contact with others, ascertain other likely cases that may arise and, from there, take appropriate actions to prevent the spread of the disease within the company environment.
In the medium-term, this information can still be used to assess whether the actions were effective and even relate this to the performance of the company in the same period, among other evaluations that the company deems relevant. But one point that would need to be well defined is access to user data, which must follow the new Brazillian General Data Protection Law (LGPD).
An example of how this screening of people who may have had contact with an infected person is the TraceTogether app, developed by a Singapore company. This app uses Bluetooth technology to be able to check with which people (who have the same app installed) the user has crossed paths and at what distance.
Another initiative with the same goals is the Check-in platform, developed by the company Pwc. In this platform, for example, it is possible to identify the risk of contagion of other employees from the moment when there is the report that some employee has contracted the disease, using geofencing technology.
Geofencing uses GPS systems or RFID sensors (Radio-frequency Identification) to locate a person within an environment — be it an open or closed space. Through the analysis of the movements of the infected person, it is possible to identify which employees had contact or were in proximity to them and are at risk of developing the disease. From this identification, the notification, and follow-up of these professionals can be made.
Electronic table reservation system
In office environments, where it will be necessary to keep people away physically (ensuring the minimum distance of 1 meter), many companies are rethinking their layouts and even their mode of operation. Perhaps, many of them do not have enough space for all their employees, since the position of the tables should require a larger area to accommodate the same number of people. Even in the case of companies that maintain a post-pandemic homeoffice system, it would not make sense for the employee to have an exclusive place, since they would only go to the office sporadically.
Therefore, many organizations have opted for shared work place systems, in which employees no longer has a fixed workstations and share the various tables available with their colleagues. However, for this to work properly, an electronic scheduling system will be required, in which employees can, before heading to the office, select an available place to be able to work that day, thus avoiding that there is no table available when they arrive at the company.
Access control system
In addition to the current systems that control access to companies’ premises, such as badges, fingerprint identification, or even facial recognition, many companies will have to ensure that its employees are wearing facemasks (or face protectors or shields) as well as ensuring that their body temperature is normal.
Thinking about this joint control, one solution would be to use an integrated system in which artificial intelligence and image processing ensure the health of employees who are in the company, without the need for someone else to collect this information personally — and potentially run the risk of being contaminated.
These types of solutions have equipment that captures images of the employee who requests access to the site — on doors, turnstiles or verification stations —, verifying their identity and the use of a mask. The same equipment has infrared sensors that check the body temperature of the employee. From all this information, the system allows or denies access to specific spaces, and, if it is connected to notification systems or medical systems, it is still possible to identify suspicious cases for proper care.
Air quality control
Research suggests that, in an environment where air quality is poor, virus particles can stay in the air for longer, increasing the chances of contamination. Because of this, many companies are using air purification and filtration solutions within their spaces.
In these solutions, sensors make the assessment of air quality, and, based on this information, artificial intelligence systems trigger an air filtration and purification system, ensuring a better air quality to employees in the company.
In conclusion, we’ve shown some examples of how technology is being used to ensure a more secure return to general activities. The use and combination of solutions such as the ones presented allows the return of some activities, especially on-site work in companies, offices and laboratories. Still, in the course of this return, new demands will arise and the use of technology will be very welcome to help meet these needs.
However, until there is an effective vaccine, it is important that we all be aware that, even if there are several ways to control the spread of the disease, we have to do our part and always ensure the hygiene of our hands, avoid sneezing, coughing or talking without the use of mask and continue social distancing.