When the COVID-19 crisis began to warp our way of life, the United States made some big bets on Big Tech.
Individuals, businesses, and school systems believed that with smartphones, laptops, video cameras, and broadband connections, we could slow the spread of the disease and limit the damage to our economy and society.
We didn’t expect miracles, exactly. We’d settle for life-saving, life-changing short cuts to get us through the crisis. And we were confident our technologies would deliver them.
We were right. And, we were wrong.
Online shopping and same-day delivery became a lifeline for millions of households. Working from home via videoconferencing apps like Zoom worked so well that employers are finding it tough to bring workers back to the office. And physicians and patients learned to like remote telemedicine services as a quicker, easier way to obtain health care.
But remote learning failed millions of homebound school children. Software apps meant to hinder the spread of COVID by tracking the movements of infected people had almost no impact. The same went for digital “vaccine passports,” which proved just as useless.
With the worst of the pandemic behind us, it’s time to hand out report cards, and decide which tech innovations of the pandemic era deserve a passing grade and have brought about change for the better.
Telemedicine has been around for a long time, but it took COVID to make it a thing.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, telemedicine sessions for Medicare patients increased from 840,000 sessions in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020.
In all of 2019, Mass General Brigham did 10,000 telemedicine sessions. During the first seven months of the pandemic shutdown, the hospital system did 1.7 million sessions.
“I don’t think there’s any question that virtual medicine is here to stay,” said neurologist Lee Schwamm, Mass General Brigham’s vice president for digital patient experience and virtual care.
Before COVID, insurance companies and governments paid doctors less for virtual office visits than for in-person care.
But during the pandemic lockdown, with visits to doctors and therapists put on hold, Medicare adopted “payment parity” — equal reimbursement to doctors for remote and in-person visits. Other insurers have followed suit.
As the crisis appears to wind down, however, Medicare and private insurers are expected to abandon parity, to keep health care costs in check.
“If we continue telemedicine into the future, we might cause a substantial cost problem,” said Ateev Mehrotra, a professor at Harvard Medical School. On the other hand, if insurers slash telemedicine payments, one of the biggest high-tech success stories of the COVID era could lose some of its luster.
Remote work technologies
Despite all the talk about “quiet quitting,” those who relied on computers to work from home during the pandemic got the job done, and then some.
“Work from home increases productivity a little bit,” said Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom. “It’s not enormous, but it’s positive.”
Bloom gave much of the credit to collaborative software such as Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams that lets groups work together efficiently from any location. Those systems performed so well that for many workers, the traditional five-day-a-week commute to the office is likely never coming back.
Prior to the pandemic, a survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 20 percent of Americans worked from home. But by December 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of US workers who could do their jobs from home were doing so.
Did those workers slack off? Yes and no. Bloom’s research found the typical worker saved about 54 minutes of commuting time by staying at home, but devoted only 35 percent of that extra time to work. The rest went for getting children ready for school, or watching TV. Even so, that works out to an extra 95 minutes of work per week, performed with digital tools that made them equally productive at home or downtown.
Even now, many workers remain in their home offices, with their employers’ blessing, while those who’ve returned to in-person work often put in just two or three days a week. It’s bad news for merchants in the nation’s business districts. But Bloom believes it’s the new normal.
“Vaccine passports,” were smartphone apps designed to prove that the phone’s owner had been vaccinated. During the COVID lockdowns, such software was supposed to let vaccinated people safely return to restaurants, theaters, and sports arenas, and encourage the unvaccinated to get their shots.
Vaccination rates did indeed increase in some countries that tried using passports, including France and Italy. .But in much of the United States, there was intense resistance. Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Alabama banned government agencies and private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.
“Because it became so politically charged, the federal government had to stay out of it,” said JP Pollak, cofounder of the Commons Project, a nonprofit that helped develop a vaccine passport. And when the Biden administration tried forcing large businesses to require their workers to be vaccinated, the Supreme Court struck the order down.
Without mandatory vaccinations, the passports serve little purpose, and are scarcely used in the United States. But Pollak said the underlying technology will live on, as a safe way for people to store their medical history.
“This concept was something nobody cared about until the pandemic,” Pollak said. “Now we have the public awareness of that . . . and we have the technology in place to get it done.”
Tech rivals Apple and Google formed an extraordinary partnership during the pandemic to develop contact-tracing apps, which could warn users if they had come close to an infected person. Designed with privacy in mind, the apps didn’t identify users. It just notified people that they should self-quarantine.
Contact-tracing apps were installed on millions of smartphones worldwide, and were deployed in a number of US states, including Massachusetts. So, how did they do?
“There is evidence that they decreased the number of cases when they were used,” said Susan Landau, professor of cybersecurity at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. She cited a February 2021 study from Oxford University in the United Kingdom that estimated the British contact-tracing app may have averted up to 900,000 COVID infections.
But the UK experience is an outlier. Australia retired its app last month, after the country’s health minister declared the system a failure. In July, Pennsylvania discontinued its app, and Delaware said it will do the same in the near future.
In most countries, relatively few people bothered to use the apps, and apathy increased once vaccines became available. If an injection could fend off the worst effects of COVID, staying away from infected people seemed a lot less important.
Still, Landau said he is grateful for the effort, because the technology can be quickly deployed in future pandemics.
For the biggest COVID tech failure, look to last week’s devastating report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Reading and math scores for about 15,000 US 9-year-olds tested this year were sharply lower than scores for children of the same age tested before the pandemic. Math scores fell for the first time on record, while reading scores suffered their biggest drop in 30 years.
In short, the pandemic-driven shift to virtual schooling has been a disaster. The same videoconferencing systems that successfully propped up the economy were no substitute for traditional face-to-face learning.
Technology isn’t solely to blame. Christine Pitts, director of impact and communications at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, notes that school systems were unprepared for the transition.
“It was stuff that was stood up in a matter of a week or two,” Pitts said. As a result, those implementing the systems had no idea how to properly conduct an online class.
For many, a lack of technology was the problem. Millions of students didn’t have good computers or fast Internet access. Pitts said the belated push to deliver better broadband to low income families is one of the few bright spots in the story. “That’s something we spent years and years fighting over,” she said.
But Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University and creator of the COVID School Data Hub, believes that no amount of training or investment in virtual education would make it an adequate replacement for an in-person classroom.
“I certainly don’t think that there’s some version of remote learning that could be great,” she said.