Canadian Senior Living Facility Pilots NFC, BLE Solution for Contact Tracing
The NFC and BLE technology being piloted is assisting with contact tracing for COVID-19 but can also be applied in other ways to senior living facilities.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada — The Care Group’s (TCG) Oxford Senior Care residence is piloting an RFID and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) system that tracks the locations of personnel, visitors and potential residents at its Vancouver facility. The system, supplied by technology company Vantage, provides both real-time and historical data indicating where individuals are located onsite, as well as with whom they share those spaces, thereby enabling the prevention of—or fast response to—COVID-19 infections.
Since the system was taken live in December 2020, the facility has not experienced a single positive COVID-19 result from a worker or visitor, says Gavin McIntosh, The Care Group’s VP of operations and finance. That is noteworthy, McIntosh says, since Oxford Senior Care is the only one of TCG’s homes in the Vancouver area that has not had a resident test positive for the coronavirus. This may be due to good luck, good policies and screenings, he speculates, as well as to the technology’s benefits.
The system currently tracks Oxford Senior Care’s approximately 50 workers, all of whom volunteered to participate in the pilot. The workers, as well as visitors, utilize Vantage’s RFID– and BLE-enabled fob, which they present to a near field communications (NFC) reader located at the entrance, after which their movements are tracked inside the building and throughout public rooms, with BLE gateways deployed on walls and plugged into outlets.
Oxford Senior Care provides long-term care, assisted living and independent living services to more than 800 residents at its two-story Abbotsford building. This was the second such facility to pilot the Vantage system, the company reports, following another senior establishment in New York. The solution for preventing COVID-19 transmissions, represents a pivot in business focus for Vantage, the company indicates.
Vantage is based in British Columbia, with an office in Colorado. The company spun off from Whitewater West to bring technology to the amusement- and water-park industry, and it continues to do so, according to Aaron Mendelson, Vantage’s customer success and product innovation director. The initial effort was intended to deliver a digital experience for park guests, as well as intelligence for park management. With the company’s solution in place, visitors acquire a wristband with BLE and NFC technology designed by Vantage and built by a third-party manufacturer.
The NFC technology could be used at a kiosk where the wristband was acquired, Mendelson explains, as well as for access control at specific gates or rides. Users could then employ the wristband to be directed to the shortest queues and earn rewards for waiting for rides. The solution is now in use at multiple sites, he says, including the Island H20 Live! water park in Kissimmee, Fla. Other deployments are under way but have been delayed by the pandemic.
Throughout the past year, Mendelson says, the company began to consider how the technology could be used in other industries, and it began investigating solutions for senior living that could use such solutions to help incentivize residents to leave their rooms and socialize or be physically active. Data regarding the locations of individuals could be received by a facility’s managers, who could then identify any trends and ascertain which residents might require more encouragement to leave their rooms. However, he adds, once the pandemic began, “We had a lot of conversations around safety in senior-living facilities.”
The solution now being piloted by Oxford Senior Care leverages the same technology Vantage offers at parks, but its dual NFC and BLE device can be built into a wristband or fob. The care facility opted to employ the fob so the device would not interfere with hand washing or sanitizing. A kiosk is installed at the building’s entrance, and BLE gateways are deployed throughout both floors on every floor in each of two wings. All workers are assigned their own key fob with a unique ID that is linked to his or her name and credentials. The fob comes with a 13.56 MHZ NFC transmitter compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, as well as a BLE beacon and a battery to power the transmissions.
When workers arrive onsite, they first proceed to the kiosk, which has a touch screen and an NFC reader. They then tap their fob near the reader, as instructed on the screen. The reader captures the fob’s ID number, linked to the individual’s information, and forwards the read data to the central server hosted by Vantage, where the company’s software manages that data.
The software prompts the kiosk’s touch screen to present a series of questions: “Are you experiencing sneezing, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, vomiting or diarrhea?” “Have you been outside the country or in a facility with COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days?” And “Have you been in close contact with a case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days?”
If all the questions are answered with “no,” the screen displays the message “Enjoy your day at The Oxford.” If any questions yield “yes” responses, however, the message “Do Not Proceed” is displayed. An infrared temperature sensor could then take the individual’s temperature and confirm that he or she is not running a fever, though Oxford Senior Care has not yet deployed this feature.
The technology can transmit a push notification to Oxford Senior Care’s management if anyone fails to respond to the questions in such a way that would clear them to enter. Once approved, an individual undergoes the usual process of entering the facility with an ID badge, with his or her fob tracked by the BLE beacon radio. The fob beacons its unique ID every two seconds as that individual goes about performing her or his duties. The software updates each person’s movements every minute or two.
The beacon gateways measure approximately 4 inches by 6 inches and are 1 inch thick. The beacons receive transmissions from area fobs and use a Wi-Fi connection (the system could also be wired) to forward the fob’s ID and signal strength to the software. The software then calculates where the fob is located, based on that data, and can display the individual’s location on a map of the building as an icon that grows larger as it remains in a single area.
Oxford Senior Care has established a protocol by which workers are expected to stay within their assigned portion of the building in order to minimize interactions. The software captures data indicating when individuals leave their appointed portion of the building, as well as how long they remain at any given spot, when this occurred and who was with him or her at the time. Non-employees can receive a temporary fob by providing their name and other details, such as who they are visiting, so that the fob ID can be then linked to that person. They can then be tracked throughout their visit. Before leaving, they would need to check out and leave the fob behind.
According to McIntosh, the facility has beacon gateways deployed in common areas, but not in individual resident rooms. The system can view that an individual was in contact with another person carrying a fob, but if someone comes in contact with a resident, that information would have to be captured via other avenues. For example, management could view a worker’s scheduled assignments or interview the person that individual was expected to visit.
The collected data offers both real-time and historical value, Mendelson says, since users can view when a specific incident occurs in real time, such as an unacceptable number of individuals congregating in a single room. The historical data, McIntosh says, is Oxford Senior Care’s priority. The company’s management creates a spreadsheet to view the information approximately once a week, enabling them to identify where individuals have been or if any workers might need to change their movement patterns.
In the event that an employee tests positive for COVID-19, McIntosh explains, the technology could be used in a contact-tracing capacity. A worker with a positive test result would provide his or her fob ID, which could then be used to view a history of that individual’s movements, along with any other fobs that may have been in a room with him or her, and for how long. That information is just the beginning of the research process, McIntosh notes. The company can then meet with those potentially exposed and determine whether a mask was worn, as well as how close they were to the infected individual. “The system helps us ask the right questions,” he states.
While the facility has had several employees test positive for the coronavirus, those cases occurred before the Vantage technology pilot began, and none of the earlier cases led to an infection of a resident or other workers, McIntosh reports. The technology acts as a reminder for those who enter the facility that they are being tracked, he says, and that they need to adhere to the predetermined location plan that is expected of them. “Our hope,” Mendelson adds, “is that it allows the facility to give a sense of safety and security to residents and their loved ones.”
The pilot is slated to conclude after 90 days, after which Oxford Senior Care will determine whether or not to permanently deploy the technology. Even after the pandemic has passed, McIntosh sees value in using the technology to ensure that residents—a vulnerable population—are safe from other infectious diseases as outbreaks occur, including colds, influenza or the norovirus.
In the long term, Mendelson says, the technology is intended to offer further value when tracking residents and workers, by monitoring the health and wellness of residents based on their movements and locations. It could also provide automatic identification in a mustering situation, he adds, if an emergency evacuation were required and all individuals needed to be accounted for.
This article originally appeared in CS sister publication RFID Journal and has been edited. Claire Swedberg is RFID’s senior editor.