By Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic is planning to roll out a system of quickly tracking and isolating contacts of people with coronavirus to eventually allow the lifting of blanket restrictions that are slowing the rise in infections but also crippling the economy.
Over the past five days, the average daily increase in new cases was 224, down from the previous five days despite more people being tested, and giving a total of 5,335 infections in the country of 10.7 million. The death toll stands at 104.
The slow-down in new infections is helping create the space to push ahead with a South Korea-inspired tracking system - with army testing teams and call centres using cellphone and bank card data to trace contacts of patients and get them into quarantine as well.
"The data available at this moment show that the epidemic has been stabilised, the growth is even somewhat slower than we had originally expected," Roman Prymula, in charge of Czech anti-coronavirus measures, told Reuters.
"Blanket measures will be gradually replaced by measures targeted at individual people."
He said he now expected around 10,000 cases by the end of the month, below previous estimates of 15,000.
The aim of the plan, called "smart quarantine", is to identify the most at-risk contacts of those who have tested positive for the virus, for example those who were closest to them or spent the longest with them, and isolate them quickly to prevent them from passing on the infection.
Given that the government believes an infected person infects about 0.4 other people per day, the target is to get the contacts quarantined within three days to not allow for an exponential rise in infections.
"We want this period to last three days maximum," Prymula said. "Testing, getting the test results, then reaching the contacts."
"It is not vital to test the contacts within three days but to get them into a home quarantine and only test them later so we are able to reveal the positivity through the first test, as testing on the first day would carry the risk that the test would be (falsely) negative."
With several countries now looking for a path for businesses and families to return to some normality, without unleashing a new wave of infections, the World Health Organization on Tuesday urged countries not to lift restrictions prematurely.
The new Czech strategy is due to be rolled out gradually next week, after testing in one of the country's 14 regions.
The authorities have not yet made public any assessment of the pilot programme, and it has run into criticism of slow progress, especially with regional public health officials not ready to handle the electronic elements of the workflow.
Health Minister Adam Vojtech told Reuters there were "growing pains" in the project but these were being solved on the go, including the focus on protecting individuals' data.
Depending on the wider results, the government has insisted it will proceed with caution on lifting restrictions on movement and travel, school closures, shopping and public gatherings that were among the strictest in Europe when imposed in mid-March.
The economy has been hard hit, with hospitality, retail, services, transport and travel sectors crippled by restrictions, and manufacturing suffering from a drop in demand and supply chain disruptions. The Labour Ministry has said unemployment, now at 3%, may jump by 5 percentage points.
To roll out the plan, the army is creating 33 testing teams and providing staff to help track potentially infected people. The teams will be supported by medical students at call centres, location data from mobile operators and data on bank card transactions.
If people consent, all the data will be used to establish contacts at risk. The data will be erased after six hours.
A mobile app based on Bluetooth technology that people will be encouraged to download will also help determine which phone numbers came in proximity with identified patients. This should be more precise than location data from mapping applications.
"You can imagine the phones recording numbers of phones in their proximity," said Jan Kulveit from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University who is one of the two main strategists for the application developed by Covid19.cz, an ad-hoc group of developers and scientists working on the system.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller, Editing by Alison Williams and Alexandra Hudson)