Contact Tracing vs Social Distancing – What Enterprises Should Know While Introducing Location Services

Using location services to track employees and visitors can help with numerous safety issues, and in the current crisis many enterprises are seeing the potential to help them safely reopen during the pandemic. For some businesses, maintaining 100% work from home for an extended period of time is feasible. For others, it is simply not possible. Several things are being talked about, but two of the key ones are contact tracing and social distancing.

  • What is Social Distancing?
  • What is Contact Tracing?
  • Why is Social Distancing Insufficient in Most Workplaces?

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    What is Social Distancing?

    Social distancing is maintaining sufficient distance between individuals to reduce the risk of viral transmission. The common rule of thumb is 6 feet/2 meters distance. Greater distance is obviously better, but six feet should be kept as a minimum distance between desks and workstations. 

    Social distancing is also used to refer to practices such as staying home as much as possible, avoiding common areas, and staggering shifts to reduce the number of people using entrances and elevators. While social distancing is useful, it is generally insufficient on its own to protect people in office and industrial workplaces.

    What is Contact Tracing?

    Contact tracing is hunting down those who have been in close contact with an infected individual and instructing them to quarantine or monitor themselves for infection. It is fairly labor intensive, generally requiring trained personnel who can get lists of contacts, contact those people, and work with them to establish how significant the exposure risk was. However, technological means can be used to support contact tracing by tracking the actual location of people, although it may not always cover all the nuances (for example, location services cannot determine if people are wearing masks or face coverings).
    Contact tracing requires that information be stored securely and that people have a certain level of training in how to do it correctly, but it is considered an important weapon in the fight against the pandemic. It identifies specific individuals who need to quarantine or get tested in order to slow the spread of the infection through a facility or the wider community.

    Why is Social Distancing Insufficient in Most Workplaces?

    Social distancing has a great value in reducing transmission rates. However, in most workplaces it is not sufficient on its own. The six foot distance comes from studies done of transmission in hospitals and doctor’s offices, and has been a guideline in healthcare settings for years. There may be some risk slightly beyond that distance, but in general statistics show that staying six feet apart reduces transmission.

    Unfortunately, in many indoor settings, it has shown to be insufficient due to the way air (and thus droplets containing the virus) circulate. For example, in a restaurant in China, a family ate at one table and then later one of them turned out to have COVID. 9 people contracted the virus and got sick. Numerous other people, including people eating in the same room, did not. It turned out that the infection route followed the direction of strong airflow from an air conditioner.

    This indicates that conference rooms, where the air is circulating in a tight area, are an obvious source of risk. People who share an office may be at risk even if they are more than six feet apart. Airflow patterns can have a surprisingly significant impact. In a call center in South Korea, an outbreak was limited to one side of a specific floor because the climate control was working in zones and the airflow was increasing the risk for those seated close to the patient zero, whilst providing some protection to those further away.
    In large areas such as warehouses or factories, the risk may be less, especially if climate control is adjusted to bring in more outside air (something which has to be balanced with issues regarding pollution, such as in buildings right next to a busy highway). However, the fact is that confined indoor spaces do not work well for social distancing, even if the six-foot distance is possible to maintain. In many cases, it is not. Factory workers are seldom able to socially distance and while masks help a lot, they are only a part of the puzzle.

    Brief passage within six feet does not carry many risks, as infection rates are also infected by time. But when people have to work closely together, especially indoors, social distancing is only going to help to a degree. Moving meetings and social activities outside may work in some cases, depending on available facilities and the weather, but for most employers contact tracing is the only reasonable action.

    How can Contact Tracing Help?

    In the workplace, the purpose of contact tracing is to contain a potential outbreak as quickly as possible by quarantining workers who were exposed to the virus. It can also be used to protect visitors. An uncontained outbreak can result in your facility having to close and a major hit on your reputation, not to mention the fact that while the risk of death from COVID-19 is low, it is present even in those in younger age groups.
    Contact tracing allows employers to identify workers who may have been exposed and send those workers home to quarantine. This ultimately results in less absenteeism. Without contact tracing, it may be necessary to test everyone, at considerable expense, while with tracing only the exposed individuals can be tested.

    Contact tracers can also track down visitors and customers who were on site. Although this does not work for retail establishments (who are better off making a statement that they had a positive individual at a certain time), it does work for facilities that already control visitor access solidly. Visitors who were exposed can be warned and given a chance to quarantine or even offered a test. This slows spread in the community as a whole. 

    You do not want your facility to be the center of a major outbreak, and contact tracing is the best way to achieve this.

    How Do Real Time Location Services Support Contact Tracing?

    Employees and visitors are issued Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) badges that stay in communication with contact tracing application. Information is stored securely and kept for two weeks (the typical quarantine period for COVID-19). Visitor contact information can also be collected and stored and visitors can be asked to report if they test positive for, or develop symptoms of COVID-19.

    The system cannot detect other mitigation methods such as mask wearing, but it can store movement details and then use an algorithm to determine the specific exposure risk, based on distance, and time. This can then flag the people who need to be checked on. A contact tracer can talk to only those people to make a better determination of risk and make arrangements for testing and/or quarantine. Given what we know about risk levels compared to distance, time, and airflow, only a subset of people will need to be checked and tested rather than, for example, an entire floor.

    The system tracks where people actually went rather than where they say they went. This kind of tracking system can also be used to measure efficiency, improve safety during an evacuation and keep visitors out of potentially dangerous areas. 
    The system can also be used to enforce social distancing by warning people when they spend too much time in close proximity, but the limitations of this have already been mentioned.

    It reduces the cost burden of unnecessary testing and of time spent in person-to-person contact tracing activities, which places an extra burden on human resources. In addition, not everyone, especially visitors, may be willing to cooperate with contact tracing. In this case, the automatically gathered information can be utilized, albeit with slightly less accuracy, to determine who needs to be tested. For example, if a visitor will not tell you who they met with, and for how long, that information can still be obtained and then double-checked with present employees. Real-time location services can thus be a primary source of contact tracing information, supported by human efforts.

    Moving forward, real-time location services can be kept in reserve for further infectious disease outbreaks, whether global or local and can be useful for many other safety concerns. has the expertise to provide you with a real-time location service solution suited to your industry and facility.  If you are interested, please contact us for more information or schedule a demo of our Covid-19 Contact Tracer solution.

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