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How Iceland Handles Contact Tracing


Now we head to Iceland, where a country of fewer than 400,000 people suffered its last COVID-19-related death back in April. One of the tools being used to help keep the virus at bay is a contact-tracing phone app, something American tech companies are racing to develop for use in this country. It's administered by a team of individuals who call and inform people that they may have been exposed to someone with the virus. We're joined now by Aevar Palmason, head of the contact-tracing team in Reykjavik. Welcome to the program.

AEVAR PALMASON: Oh, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you tell us about this app? How does it work?

PALMASON: This app is mostly helping us and helping the infected person to refreshing their memory about where they've been and when they've been around. So as an example, the person who has got infected remember that she went from place A to B on the same day she got the symptoms. But she can't remember what day that was. So with the data, we can refresh in her memory, OK, we can see here on the map that you went between this part of the city on that day. Oh, yes. That's correct. That was the day I got my first symptoms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you say when you actually end up getting in contact with people when you're doing this contact-tracing?

PALMASON: So we wait for results from the laboratories. And as soon we get information about a positive test, medical stuff from the team calls the infected person and interview him or her. And the person is asked, like, when did you first have your symptoms? And where have you been? Who have you been in close contact with? After the interview with the infected person, we begin to reach out to the contacts and tell them that they have been in contact with someone who has got infected with COVID-19. And for his or her own safety and the safety of other, they need to go into quarantine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I take it the government has been extremely clear that personal data collected from a user's phone, movements and whereabouts and such, would be deleted after a few weeks. And people have trusted that. Do you think that would work here in America?

PALMASON: People in Iceland trust their organizations, and the politicians decided and the government decided to stay in the back and put all of the trust and listen to the scientists. Iceland is a small nation, and it doesn't take a long time to raise awareness with the whole nation. And the people trust the organization, like the Civil Protection and the chief epidemiologist and the Directorate of Health, who have been controlling this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iceland has had remarkable success at holding the line on the virus, even without canceling schools and allowing some restaurants to stay open with some very serious restrictions about social distancing. What do you think the main thing, though, has been in helped flattening the curve in terms of cases? Do you think contact-tracing has been one of the key elements?

PALMASON: Yes, contact-tracing and early and aggressive testing. These two play the biggest role.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just tell me what it looks like right now in Iceland? I mean, are people going out? Are people intermingling? Are they wearing masks? You haven't had a case in quite some time.

PALMASON: There are very few people wearing masks, and it's a beautiful day right now. People are going out. But they keep these social distancing. And also we have now lifted the gathering ban a little bit. So now more than 20 people can come together. I think it's 50 right now. And there are plans to lift them even more. And there are also plans to open the borders for tourists in June 15.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here in the U.S., many app developers and big tech companies are also exploring contact-tracing apps. What advice would you give them?

PALMASON: I would give them that advice at least to look in our direction and to adopt the same methods we've been using because there's personal relations that you get with the infected person and the contacts. I mean, it's a great tool to help you in the contact-tracing team, but an app on its own is not enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Aevar Palmason from Reykjavik, Iceland. Thank you so much.

PALMASON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.