Problem-Solving Pelicans Consider Contact Tracing

Students in the PHI and online meet with Yale's Dr. Vermund

How might Loomis Chaffee participate in a Yale School of Public Health study that uses innovative technology to facilitate fast, accurate, COVID-19 contact-tracing?

This is the question that students in Loomis’ Problem-Solving for the Common Good class are working to answer after meeting with Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of Yale’s School of Public Health, on Thursday, September 17. Dr. Vermund joined the eight in-person and six online students via Zoom videoconference in the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI), where the class is taught by Director of Innovation Scott MacClintic ’82.

Dr. Vermund described the scope of Yale’s contact-tracing project and identified some of the multi-pronged challenges that need to be addressed for Loomis to consider taking part in the initiative. For the project to succeed, a large percentage of individuals must commit to the community effort and make the small behavioral changes that are needed for participation. 

“Welcome to human research,” Dr. Vermund said. Establishing protocols for scientific study that people are willing to take part in is an important aspect of his line of work.

Dr. Vermund explained that Yale engineers developed a personal signaling and tracking device, called a “dongle,” that is worn by individuals in a setting such as a school, hospital, or other defined work or living space. Using signals, the dongles recognize and track when other devices are within six feet for 15 minutes or more. If an individual among the dongle-wearers tests positive for COVID-19, the person’s device can swiftly and comprehensively identify other dongles with which it had close contact, aiding in the rapid isolation and testing of people at risk for exposure and thus helping contain community spread, he explained.

Unlike smartphone apps that can access personal data, no personal data of the dongle-wearer is collected or recorded, Dr. Vermund said. Yale experts used sophisticated cyber-security methods in developing the dongle’s technology because they understood that protecting individual privacy would make people more likely to agree to wear the device. He said the dongle is simple to use, requiring only that people remember to wear it every day and charge it every two or three days.

Dr. Vermund, a pediatrician and infectious disease epidemiologist who has advised Loomis on community health and safety measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, answered student questions and concluded his talk by offering to come to campus for a demonstration of the technology and further discussion. Students in the class said they thought other students might be willing to take part if it would help ensure that on-campus activities could continue.

Ready to take on the challenge using a design-thinking approach, the students and Scott assembled to brainstorm and break down tasks into various components via an online whiteboard. Ultimately, the students will share their findings with the Loomis administration as the school considers whether to participate in the Yale program. With the problem-solving term course concluding next month, the students know they must work quickly.   

Dr. Vermund spoke with PHI students via Zoom videoconference.