COVID wristbands: How they’ve worked in Hong Kong

Smart wristbands connected to phone apps are the latest tools in the Cayman Islands government’s arsenal in protecting the islands against the spread of COVID-19.

Announcing the planned introduction of the geofencing device at a press briefing on 9 Sept., Premier Alden McLaughlin said Cayman would be using monitoring technology similar to that used in Hong Kong.

“The electronic monitoring device selected is being used successfully in Hong Kong to help ensure that persons in isolation remain where they are supposed to be,” the premier said.

Hong Kong has used two separate types of monitoring devices since they were introduced in April.

The Cayman Compass contacted a number of people in Hong Kong who had been fitted with the wristbands after they passed through the city’s Chek Lap Kok Airport in recent weeks and months.

Philippe Massonnet has worn both types of wristbands, after undergoing two periods of quarantine upon returning to Hong Kong – once in April and again in August.

“The first one in our first quarantine in April was quite big and a bit heavy, and not that comfortable,” he told the Compass. “The second one we got in the second quarantine in August was much smaller, lighter, much more bearable.”

Philippe Massonnet has undergone two quarantine periods in Hong Kong since April.

He added, “The first quarantine we had, we were called three times on the phone by the Department of Health in Hong Kong, and once it was a video call, just to check if we were wearing the wristband, and the other two times were just to ask us how we feel – any symptoms, fever…, and the last phone call was to let us know it was the end of quarantine.”

In Hong Kong, arrivals undergo a COVID-19 PCR test at the airport, before they go into the mandatory 14-day quarantine, and again three days before the end of the isolation period.

While awaiting the results of the tests, which can take several hours, arrivals have the option to be taken by bus to a hotel. Passengers are also allowed to wait at the airport while the tests are being processed.

“The first time [in April], between the time we landed and the time we checked in at our designated hotel… we spent the night at the hotel waiting for the results of the test. There were six hours between the time the plane landed and when we entered the hotel. The second time, it was eight hours, because there were more flights, more people that day. There was a big queue, not for the test but for filling in the paperwork at the airport,” Massonnet said.

Philippe Massonnet wears the tracking wristband he was issued in April.

“The system, the wristband, worked,” he added. “Obviously they have improved it. It’s very light. You almost don’t feel it, it’s not any heavier than even a Swatch, or a very light watch,” he said.

Reuben Easey was released from quarantine on Monday night, after spending two weeks inside his apartment, and admitted it was with much relief that he removed the monitoring device.

Speaking with the Compass on Tuesday morning, Hong Kong time, he said, “I literally cut it with a pair of scissors less than 12 hours ago, at 23:59. That was my release time after two weeks. I was very happy to do so. It is still lying in two pieces on my couch.”

Asked why he was so relieved to remove the wristband, he said there was no problem with the band itself, but “it’s linked to an app on the phone. Three or four times a day, I get a ping from the app on my phone telling me to scan the QR code on my wristband. It’s pretty restrictive. By scanning the QR code, it shows you’re wearing the wristband.”

Easey had returned from seeing his family in the UK. He explained the process of what happens immediately after one lands at the airport.

“You get the wristband and download the app on your phone, and do the COVID test. It takes several hours waiting at the airport. It is a bit of a pain, especially after a long-haul flight. I spent nine hours waiting at the airport,” he said.

This type of electronic tracking wristband, worn here by Reuben Easey in Hong Kong, is similar to the devices being introduced in the Cayman Islands this week.

If the arrivals test negative, they are allowed to leave the airport and make their way to their homes by whatever transportation means they choose. Once they get home, they walk around their apartments so the phone’s GPS tracker can get exact coordinates of the living space, and then they are required to remain there for two weeks. If they test positive, they are transported to a makeshift hospital at the Asia-World Expo, an exhibition centre located near the airport.

Breaking quarantine can lead to a HK$5,000 (CI$538) fine and imprisonment of up to six months, according to Hong Kong regulations. In Cayman, if someone leaves mandatory quarantine prior to getting a negative test, they could face a $1,000 fine and imprisonment of six months.

Easey, who worked from home during his quarantine period, said he definitely experienced some cabin fever during the two weeks confined to his flat.

“It’s not the end of the world by any means, but it was quite a relief getting that text to confirm that you may remove the wristband and delete the app from your phone. I walked out into the night,” he said.

The first thing he intended to do when he got the chance on Tuesday was to walk up Victoria Peak, the highest hill on Hong Kong Islands “to stretch my legs”, he said.

Ava Champion was issued one of the wristbands when she returned to Hong Kong, just two days after they were introduced.

One of the first people to wear the monitoring device was Ava Champion. “I arrived in Hong Kong just two days after the government wristbands were introduced,” she said, pointing out some of the teething problems the original devices encountered.

“There was a lot of talk at this time about the technology being corrupted,” she said. “For example, it was difficult to set up the mandatory government tracking app because it was all in Cantonese and the option for English just didn’t work. I actually had to get my Cantonese-speaking friend to translate the questions for me so I could set up the app. I think this was largely due to the Hong Kong government not knowing how to go about tracking at first, but it’s clear that the system is much more on top of things now.”

She added, “Many of my friends who have come back much later told me about calls and texts they would get from the government on a daily basis and the wristband they had to wear would beep if they went out of range. Whereas the initial wristband I wore was literally just a hospital patient paper band that felt pretty useless.”

But she admits it wasn’t necessarily the band around her wrist that kept her at home. “To be honest, the biggest pressure was moral pressure rather than fear of the technology. Most neighbours will know that you have just arrived from overseas and so they know you are meant to be in quarantine, and this actually makes you afraid to go out.”

As of Friday, 4,996 people had tested positive for coronavirus in Hong Kong, and 103 of those had died.

The first people in Cayman to use the wristband and app technology are 29 passengers from 12 households who arrived on Thursday’s British Airways flight. They are taking part in a trial programme in the run-up to the phased reopening of Cayman’s borders on 1 Oct.

Premier McLaughlin, outlining arrangements for the first tranche of people to use the geofencing devices, has said the purpose of the trial programme “is to gather information on various aspects of the process – how well they work, or not. This includes the time required to process arrivals under the new procedures in effect from 1 October, assessing airport capabilities to conduct COVID-19 tests… and evaluate the electronic device technology, including its ability to meet our needs and user experience.”

The BA passengers who arrived Thursday underwent COVID tests at the airport and were issued with the monitoring devices before being transported by bus to hotels or homes. They are required to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days, and then undergo another COVID test prior to be being released from isolation. Only those who return a negative test will be allowed to leave quarantine.

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