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Tech firms deploy Bluetooth chips for coronavirus contact tracing in office

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - Technology companies are developing their own contact tracing systems to help prevent coronavirus outbreaks in their offices as countries begin to ease lockdown measures and a return to the workplace is in the offing.

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker reaches toward a car to grab a completed coronavirus diagnostic test, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 6, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Silicon Valley company Juniper Networks Inc plans to equip its about 10,000 employees with work identification badge holders that have a Bluetooth chip that will help to record a worker’s movements and interactions in the office, company vice president Jeff Aaron said in an interview.

The system employs Wi-Fi routers and access points from Juniper Network’s unit Mist that will communicate with the Bluetooth chips on the badges. The data collected will help determine which employees need to be tested and isolate after a colleague tests positive for the new coronavirus.

All U.S. states have eased virus lockdowns, but work-from-home remains the norm in California’s tech industry. California has reported more than 86,000 coronavirus cases and 3,500 deaths, the lowest tallies in the United States relative to the state’s large population.

Mist, which is a small but fast-growing Wi-Fi equipment maker, is selling its new system to other businesses through its annual subscription of $150 per access point, and about 25 customers are testing it, Aaron said.

He said businesses that are typically reluctant to spend on replacing older technology have indicated that significant funding is available for contact tracing in the workplace.

“They are saying: If this is a reason for me to rip out my old Wi-Fi and put in a Wi-Fi plus BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) solution and support contact tracing use cases, I can definitely get budget for that,” he said.

Aaron said customers could skip the Bluetooth component in its system, but still see when spaces such as conference rooms become overcrowded by tracking the number of Wi-Fi-connected devices.

Several software companies have announced tools during the pandemic to automate workplace contact tracing and help customers avoid disruptions.

Among others touting workplace tracking tools, Slovakia-based Symbiosy said its own software, along with sensors from technology partner Quuppa, helped identify about 40 people to test after an employee became infected last month.

“Manually, we would not even have been able to get that precision,” said Tomas Melisko, head of real estate company HB Reavis’ Symbiosy unit. “And we would need to have sent twice that many people for testing” if solely analyzing building access logs.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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