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  • Writer's picturePeter Robb

Remote Technologies find a role during COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens it's grip on more countries around the world, tech solutions that help to deliver services remotely have become integrated into the response.

Globally, governments have taken measures to restrict movement of people — closing borders and implementing curfews and lockdowns — in response to the pandemic. While these measures can slow down the spread of the virus, they can also hinder the public health response to COVID-19 and harm economies.

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Companies and organizations are using drones, video chat, and mobile apps, among other tech solutions, to try to mount the difficult challenges surrounding these physical barriers. While they were originally aimed at improving efficiencies and reaching hard-to-access areas, their use has become more widespread and mainstream, including expansion into urban areas and into new services.

Drones delivering medical supplies

The company Zipline uses autonomous drones to deliver medical products across countries. Currently operating in Rwanda and Ghana, it is planning to launch emergency operations in the U.S. in the next few weeks. It also expects to operate in India within the next year.

COVID-19 — a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak Follow the latest developments on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Health workers place orders by text message and a drone takes off from one of Zipline’s distribution centers. The drones can carry about 4 pounds of cargo, fly at up to 90 miles per hour, and reach their destination in an average of 30 minutes, according to the company.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was among the sources of inspiration for creating the Zipline solution, as communities were cut off from access to supply lines, said Brittany Hume Charm, head of global health at Zipline.

Now, Zipline drones fly COVID-19 test samples from patients in difficult-to-reach rural areas of Ghana to laboratories in Accra, the capital city, and Kumasi, the second-largest city.

“This marks the first time in history that autonomous drones have been used to make regular long-range deliveries into densely populated urban areas,” according to a press release.

Without the use of drones, such deliveries could take several days. A truck might have to wait for enough samples to justify the long journey to the city, whereas a drone can carry a single test. Delays can hamper a country’s ability to get ahead of the virus’s transmission and could jeopardize the samples, which might be damaged in transit if cold-chain links are broken, according to the company.

Beyond speed, the drones help to minimize the spread of the virus between truck drivers and communities, Hume Charm said. Drones can also help allocate limited supplies to the right locations, ensuring that they aren’t sitting unused in places that don’t need them. This could include personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits, Hume Charm said, adding that the same could apply to treatments and vaccines, which may have limited availability when they are found.

“For a health care worker in a small district to hear from another health worker in a similar small district about how they solved a problem makes a huge difference.” — Bruce Baird Struminger, senior associate director, ECHO Institute

“It’s very hard to be able to exactly match the supply to demand. By being able to allocate resources in real time on demand, you can make it so that you know that you are allocating a very scarce quantity of important products in the most efficient way possible,” she said.

There are also questions around maintaining continuity of care during the pandemic for people with preexisting conditions who need ongoing treatment, Hume Charm said. In Rwanda, for example, Zipline — with Partners in Health — is delivering chemotherapy medications to cancer patients who are unable to visit the hospital due to the health crisis, according to the company.

Video conferences linking health workers

Project ECHO works to provide “telementoring” services to health workers, who use a video platform to connect with subject matter experts to share best practices, creating peer-to-peer learning networks, according to Bruce Baird Struminger, senior associate director at the ECHO Institute. It connects front-line health workers, often in remote areas, with national or international level experts.

The strength of the system is that actual cases are presented and discussed, Baird Struminger said.

“For a health care worker in a small district to hear from another health worker in a similar small district about how they solved a problem makes a huge difference,” he said.

This helps people in rural areas give tips on best practices for how they are managing with limited resources, Baird Struminger said. This could include ways to preserve protective equipment, training on community surveillance, or providing information on oxygen therapy techniques.

“People — in their experience in places where they are treating lots of patients — are discovering best practices that need to be shared immediately across the globe,” he said.

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