Tech cruise ships could implement to combat spread of coronavirus: far-UVC sanitation, contact tracing

Tech cruise ships could implement to combat spread of coronavirus: far-UVC sanitation, contact tracing

Today, the world faces an unmatched challenge: the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected nearly 6 million people, according to Johns Hopkins data.

And cruise ships have been at the center of the drama as passengers have been quarantined and crew members trapped on board. Now, cruise lines need to find new ways to make sure passengers feel safe when boardings resume after the CDC's no-sail order expires in July.

Multiple companies are moving ahead with technology that could be implemented on ships so that cruisers could return to sea with less worry – though cruise lines themselves haven't announced specific plans.

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Sanitation: Far-UVC light

One technology that could be implemented to disinfect heavy-traffic areas on cruise ships is far-UVC light. Far-UVC light has the capability to scramble the genetic material of viruses such as coronavirus, effectively sanitizing the air, surfaces or even people.

"Ultraviolet light in general has been used to kill bacteria and viruses for a very long time," David Brenner, director at the Columbia University Center for Radiological Research, told USA TODAY. It's been known to kill bacteria and viruses for the last century and for the last two to three decades has been used to disinfect surgical theaters or hospital wards.

"It's being used in the MTA here in New York, in the wee hours between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. when the MTA is closed down," he added, referencing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority public transit vehicles and some fixed locations being sanitized with UV light. "It’s been in use to kill viruses and sterilize locations when people aren’t around, which is not ideal because even if you have a sterilized location at 9 o’clock in the morning and people start coming in, they’re potentially gong to contaminate."

Far-UVC light, which Brenner's team has been working with for the past seven to eight years, can be used to sterilize space while people are around, making it ideal for use in crowded public spaces, including cruise ships.

UVC light is similar to coffee at varying temperatures, Fred Maxik, the founder and CTO of Healthe, a company creating sanitation structures with far-UVC light, told USA TODAY. When its wavelength is too long, it's like hot coffee and can burn you. But at the right length (approximately 222 nanometers), far-UVC can't damage living human cells – it disinfects without harming people, Maxik explained.

"Essentially what we found is the wavelength from the UV light, which while still being able to kill bacteria and viruses, it’s not a safety hazard for human exposure," Brenner said. "If we can reduce the level of virus in occupied spaces, we are undoubtedly going to reduce risk of person-to-person transmission."

Healthe is trying to implement far-UVC light to sanitize people and spaces on cruise ships.

"There are a number of areas you can imagine right away," Maxik said. "Embarkation areas, high-traffic areas around concierge desks, greeting counters, larger gathering spaces, places people get together in small groups like elevators or vestibules – those would be the obvious first places."

He said it would feel a little like Transportation Security Administration checks at the airport: People would go through a portal-like entryway that would emit far-UVC rays that can sanitize boarding crew members and passengers.

Healthe Cleanse Portal

A passenger would walk in, raise their arms, do a slow, full turn, and then walk through.

The idea is that the portal will "clean the pathogens off your clothing, off your skin, off any packaging you might carry with you as you walk into the space," he said. "And it does so by essentially disrupting the genetic material of those pathogens."

Packages could also be sanitized in this way, Maxik said. And in some areas, such as bathrooms, typical lights could be replaced with far-UVC lights to continuously sanitize the area.

Maxik said the company is in talks with a few major cruise companies about implementing far-UVC light, though he was unable to share which cruise lines at the time of the interview.

Contract tracing and social distancing

Destroying viral genetic material isn't the only way to stop the spread of illnesses like coronavirus on a ship.

Indoor data intelligence can provide cruise lines with insight on where people are congregating, where people might need to be dispersed and who came in contact with whom in case of a viral outbreak on board – all from a ssignal that each mobile device emits.

The cruise ships could monitor their passengers anonymously through their signals, giving the lines an idea of when to ask people to move along.

Nadir Ali, the CEO of Inpixon, an indoor data intelligence company, is working with cruise lines and hotels on incorporating the technology to help safely monitor passengers and lessen fears around cruising.

Inpixon specifically can collect and use data acquired using radio frequency scanners that pick up on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth signals and cellular signals.

Cruise operators could view a ship's map, which would be coded in green, yellow and red based on crowd-density levels.

"If a certain deck is turning yellow to red, maybe [someone] needs to go make sure [it isn't too crowded]," Ali said.

But it could be used for more than crowd control.

"If, God forbid, a patient starts developing symptoms or has come down with COVID-19 or some other virus or flu or something, [the cruise line] could also [ask if] that person can identify themselves," he explained.

The software used for indoor data intelligence captures a unique code emitted by a phone as part of its signal, Ali explained, but it is encrypted and kept anonymous. However, in a health emergency, those codes could be used.

Public health mobile apps:Apple and Google release coronavirus contact tracing technology

If the infected person chose to share their information, the cruise line could then determine where that individual had been on board, indicating which areas may need a deeper cleaning in case of contaminated surfaces or whether an area should be closed off. It would also allow the cruise line to identify what other phones and people were in similar proximity – and may have been exposed.

While digital contact tracing could be very effective, it also breaches the issue of privacy, which Ali addressed, noting the company never attaches a person's identification to their address unless they choose to have that happen.

"We want to make sure people are consenting and opting in to this process to make sure we protect their privacy," he said.

Since the idea of contact tracing with coronavirus emerged though, it has come with skepticism from the public.

"There are conflicting interests," said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy-protecting approach in February. "Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people" to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, she said.

And Apple and Google are releasing coronavirus contact tracing applications that can alert people anonymously if they have been in the vicinity of an infected person. While the technology keeps the system anonymous, nearly 3 in 5 Americans still said they would be unwilling or unable to use Google and Apple's contact tracing technology, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

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Contributing: Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY; Associated Press


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