AMARILLO, Texas (KXAN) — Every second matters for senior living facilities trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

So when a staff member at an Amarillo assisted living facility called in sick, they immediately turned to their digital contact tracing technology.

“As soon as I got off the phone with her, within five minutes, I had a sorted out, digitized contact tracing,” said Legacy at Town Square Director Joe Walter. “Whether it’s two of my team members in the same room, I get that logged in. Or if it is a team member and a resident, or two residents.”

He had a list of people who may have been exposed almost immediately — which would have manually taken hours to compile through phone calls and interviews. Then, Walter was able to start isolating any residents or other employees who might have come in contact with the person who was feeling sick.

Eventually, the staff member’s COVID-19 test results came back negative, but Walter said he was glad he didn’t have to wait.

“Yes, it’s fast, and that’s important,” Walter said. “But it wouldn’t do us any good to be fast and inaccurate. Luckily, this can tell me with extreme accuracy: when, where and for how long any individual interacts with other individual in my community.”

Legacy at Town Square residents were wearing the CarePredict wristbands before COVID-19 ever began spreading in senior living facilities.

“This was designed to identify when a seniors activities and behaviors change, and then we would make predictions for whether they were at risk for a fall, for depression,” said CarePredict’s Chief Business Officer Gerald Wilmink.

They also function as a resident’s electronic “key” for access into the building and a call-for-help button. But Wilmink said they realized, with a few tweaks, the technology could be used for contact tracing, as well.

“We saw that seniors were particularly vulnerable, and we thought, we need to make something to help,” Wilmink said, describing a three-week “sprint” to adjust their technology. “This is before anyone was talking about contact tracing — before Google and Apple and ‘Big Tech’ got into this.”

Here’s how it works: CarePredict uses “beacon” technology to connect with wristbands worn by every staff member and resident in the facility, tracking their movements or interactions with each other and the environment.

“With our tool you can actually go back in time, and look at what individuals went into that room after it was infected, even though the infected person had left, so they can then go in and disinfect those rooms,” Wilmink explained.

CarePredict is currently being used in six Texas senior living facilities.

Digital contact tracing, exposure notification

Last week, Apple and Google partnered up to release their own COVID-19 contact tracing technology, which they call “exposure notification.”

It uses Bluetooth in people’s smartphones to detect when they come in contact with someone who’s already tested positive for coronavirus, and is a part of the latest software update on their devices. It’s meant to be incorporated into COVID-19 apps developed by local and state government health agencies.

Austin Public Health is not utilizing any apps or connecting to the Apple-Google technology, but said their employees use other forms of technology to help their investigations.

A spokesperson for APH said their Public Testing Enrollment Form allows them to send an exposure questionnaire automatically to residents who test positive, to help gather details for their epidemiologists on how the virus might have spread.

“We have been working with the state on a daily basis on strategies that would enhance contact tracing into efforts communities on a larger scale. This includes epidemiology-response funding received back in April,” the spokesperson said. “Technology includes an online form that will allow our teams to do contact tracing automatically through the submission form, which should increase the coverage of investigations.”

They are also using a “contact tracer estimator” tool, built by George Washington University to help health departments determine the number of staff needed to effectively identify and trace people in their areas.

As of May 11, APH reported 34 employees doing working case investigations and contact tracing.

“We plan to add up to 120 people into the contact tracing unit with the help of other city and county departments and partners and temporary positions we’re currently hiring for,” the spokesperson said.

KXAN reached out to the Texas Department of State Health Services to see whether the state would be utilizing any digital contact tracing, but hasn’t heard back. A statement released last week from Apple and Google included remarks from state officials in North Dakota, Alabama and South Carolina, indicating they plan to use it.

“We invite other states to join us in leveraging smartphone technologies to strengthen existing contact tracing efforts, which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running,” said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Cyber security and privacy

Texas cyber security firm Critical Start said their experts urge anyone utilizing any type of digital contact tracing program to ask questions.

“Not every method being leveraged has been vetted, or is as transparent as Google and Apple’s method,” said Quentin Rhoads-Herrera said. “People really need to look out for which method their state is going with, and ask how their data is being secured and anonymized — kept private.”

He recommends:

  • Keeping your devices updated
  • Checking if you have been automatically opted-in, and how to opt-out if you prefer
  • Find out how the technology works
  • Find out who has access to the data being collected
  • Find out how the data is being stored, encrypted and protected

“Privacy is key. It’s one of the few things we have control over in our life,” said Rhoads-Herrera. “The more we give up, it’s harder to get that privacy back.”

He explained the Apple-Google Bluetooth low-energy technology doesn’t use your longitude or latitude location, but uses time and distance from another person who has also opted into the program. He said there have been several vulnerabilities apparent in Bluetooth technology in the past, however.

“In some versions of the Android phones, it allowed someone to take full control over the phone,” he explained. “It could be as simple as it’s leaking data accidentally.”

Rhoads-Herrera said, in his opinion, Apple and Google have been transparent as to how their program works and keeps data protected.

“One key thing about these applications is they only work if a majority opt-in to use it,” he said. “This program, all of the programs, except for the manual ones, would just not work. So, asking these questions and feeling comfortable is important as we get closer to the release of these applications.”

‘Would this make you feel safer?’

Wilmink said CarePredict doesn’t use Bluetooth technology for a few reasons.

“Most of the seniors we work with don’t have smartphones — and the staff are not permitted to use phones during their shift,” he said. “Plus, Bluetooth also has issues with ‘bleeding’ through thin walls.”

He said their “beacon” technology avoids creating false positive in homes where so many people live in close quarters.

“Our solution is very granular and lets us get down to the room level,” he said.

Wilmink also hopes this technology could help homes reopen to outside visitors, by issuing a device to anyone who comes through the door. Their goal is to expand and be able to track other threats to vulnerable senior communities.

“They need these tools,” Wilmink said. “It can be used for other infectious diseases inside this community.”

Since the residents in his home began wearing the devices, Joe Walter said he’s never felt more secure.

“If your mother was to live in my community, would this make you feel safer about that? In most cases we have found, the answer is yes.”

KXAN Investigators will have a closer look at this technology tonight on KXAN News at 10 p.m.