Artificial intelligence to help in the fight against COVID-19

Artificial intelligence to help in the fight against COVID-19

September 2, 2020

Health officials have begun using artificial intelligence in their fight against coronavirus as Premier Daniel Andrews insists that contact tracing has improved considerably over the past few months.

Experts say an efficient contact tracing system and a fast turnaround of tests is critical to reopening the Victorian economy and stopping the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Ahead of the release of a road map on Sunday that details how the state will be guided out of the stage four lockdown, Mr Andrews said he had not spared the Department of Health and Human Services any cash in its bid to fight COVID-19.

"The fact that we've been able to achieve improvements, very significant improvements, whilst we've had the highest volumes that any contact tracing team in the country has had to deal with, I think should be seen as a positive," he said.

Epidemiologist Tony Blakely believes artificial intelligence can be a useful addition to contact tracingCredit:

The government has purchased an artificial intelligence platform from IBM to review COVID-19 data, including case and lengthy contact interviews.

The software will provide deeper and quicker analysis to identify links between cases, emerging trends in geographic areas or workplaces and provide speedy insight into outbreaks, according to a government spokeswoman.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said while artificial intelligence was no replacement for contact tracing it could be a useful addition.

“If you can do it cost effectively then it is worth a go,” he said. “It might help you find a few more people and rule out some people.”

He said artificial intelligence could be used to predict who might be a superspreader, the next hotspot suburb or an emerging high-risk industry.

It could involve looking at patterns and words in interview transcripts or coding interview responses and then using computer algorithms to predict trends.

“It will be no replacement for shoe-leather contact tracing, you will need to be walking the footpaths, speaking to people and having that local knowledge. That is invaluable,” Professor Blakely said.

Victoria recorded 90 new cases on Wednesday and six more deaths, which were all connected to aged care outbreaks. Of the new cases, 68 were not linked to known outbreaks and are under investigation.

Industry groups have urged the state government to reveal how contact tracing systems will cope with fresh coronavirus outbreaks as the economy begins reopening.

Figures released by the government show that 88 per cent of positive cases had been interviewed within 24 hours of the Health Department being notified of their result. And 99 per cent of known contacts had been notified within 48 hours of the department receiving confirmation of the initial case.

But families impacted by the virus are calling for a faster turnaround.

Jo Campbell’s daughter tested positive to the virus on Sunday but her two sons, who share a house with her daughter, were not informed they were close contacts until Tuesday evening.

“I am all for opening up Victoria again but with these failures it is setting us back,” she said. “I feel like the system is letting us down. It has failed my family.”

She said it took three days for the department to place her daughter in hotel quarantine to help protect her sons from the virus.

“She was on the phone straight away, asking to be put into quarantine, she requested accommodation and it took three days.”

The opposition's health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier is calling for an independent audit of contact tracing and says its failures, in addition to the hotel quarantine saga, have led to the state's second wave of coronavirus.

"The reason why we are in this situation is because they can't contact-trace," she said.

"If you can't contact trace properly then you can't get on top of cases. Delays in identifying close contacts is the difference between containing the virus and further outbreaks."

The Age has previously revealed that long delays have hindered efforts to get on top of community transmission, with some Victorians waiting nearly two weeks for confirmation they could have been exposed to COVID-19.

Last week the the Victorian Health Department quietly scrapped its paper COVID-19 notification system, replacing it with an electronic system that will let doctors quickly submit positive test results.

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