When the pen can be deadly in transmitting the virus

The government announced on May 12 that shop owners need to register their customers’ names and telephone numbers for Covid-19 contact tracing.

This has triggered shops, from supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants and many other businesses, to arrange for registration books and requesting all customers to write down their details.

In popular shops, a common scene would be long lines of people, one by one writing their names in the book or paper using the same pen prepared by the shop and having hand contact with the book.

To prevent Covid-19 transmission, members of the public are told not to shake hands as we can transmit the virus to each other.

Now imagine one has Covid-19 and has the virus on their hands. They will transmit this to the pen and paper and many other individuals who use the same pen or paper risk getting infected.

Imagine it’s a supermarket, with 500 to 1,000 people visiting every day. We can potentially start a Covid-19 cluster as many may get infected.

Imagine further thousands of shops all over the country doing this … it is a recipe for disaster.

There is a saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword”. In this case, this is true as the pen can be deadly.

If the pen must be used, the following needs to be done to minimise the risk of the pen transmitting the virus:

  • Sanitise the hands of every customer before using the pen;
  • Sanitising the pen with every use;
  • Sanitising both the hands of the customer and the pen with every use;
  • Customers to bring their own pen; and,
  • A worker from the shop/supermarket to write down the particulars.

The alcohol sanitiser must have at least 70% alcohol content and approved by the health ministry. It is recommended that the sanitiser remains on the hands or pen for at least 30 seconds to be effective.

One can see that these conditions may be difficult to fulfil. In addition, there are also many sanitisers that may not necessarily have approval from the health ministry and their effectiveness may not be optimal.

The most ideal way forward may be the “no-touch” technique, using smartphones.

For example, using Bluetooth, smartphones can log other phones nearby. If someone becomes infected, there is a ready list of their prior encounters. Phones on the list would get push notifications urging them to get tested or self-isolate.

Singapore uses Bluetooth technology and an app called “Trace Together”. South Korea, China and many other European countries are using a similar app-based approach.

Other “no-touch” technological approaches include using WhatsApp to sent details to the shop or scanning the shop’s QR code.

It’s been noted that in the past, in many instances, large-scale disasters have resulted from what seemed like the most innocuous events.

Attention to detail is crucial when healthcare efforts are initiated.

Contact tracing is one of the crucial efforts we must undertake to fight this pandemic. However, we need to be extra careful that in doing so, we do not facilitate more infections.

The other issue is, of course, the privacy of the data collected by all business premises and whether they comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

Citizens must be reassured that the data is solely used for the intended purpose and not otherwise.

We, therefore, urge that in contact tracing efforts, we need to use the safest way possible and adhere to the dictum “first and foremost, do no harm”.

Dr John Teo, Dr Amar-Singh HSS and Dr Timothy William are FMT readers.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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