How Taiwan Used Big Data, Transparency and a Central Command to Protect Its People from Coronavirus

Written by Beth Duff-Brown.

Image credit: 總統訪視予志藥局 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published by Stanford Health Policy and can be found here.

Taiwan is only 81 miles off the coast of mainland China and was expected to be hard hit by the coronavirus, due to its proximity and the number of flights between the island nation and its massive neighbor to the west.

Yet it has so far managed to prevent the coronavirus from heavily impacting its 23 million citizens, despite hundreds of thousands of them working and residing in China.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases map, as of Tuesday, March 3, there were only 42 cases and one death in Taiwan, far behind China, with more than 80,000 cases and more than 2,900 deaths. The country also lags far behind its other Asian neighbors and ranks 17th in the world for the number of global cases. As of this writing, South Korea was second, with 5,186 cases; followed by Iran with 2,336 and Italy with 2,036 people infected with the virus.

The United States currently stands at 107 known cases and six deaths.

The viral outbreak in China occurred just before the Lunar New Year, during which time millions of Chinese and Taiwanese were expected to travel for the holidays.

So what steps did Taiwan take to protect its people? And could those steps be replicated here at home?

Stanford Health Policy’s Jason Wang, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine who also has a PhD in policy analysis, credits his native Taiwan with using new technology and a robust pandemic prevention plan put into place at the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“The Taiwan government established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) after SARS and it’s become part of a disaster management center that focuses on large-outbreak responses and acts as the operational command point for direct communications,” said Wang, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes, and Prevention at Stanford. The NHCC also established the Central Epidemic Command Center, which was activated in early January.

“And Taiwan rapidly produced and implemented a list of at least 124 action items in the past five weeks to protect public health,” Wang said. “The policies and actions go beyond border control because they recognized that that wasn’t enough.”

Wang outlines the measures Taiwan took in the last six weeks in an article published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Given the continual spread of COVID-19 around the world, understanding the action items that were implemented quickly in Taiwan, and the effectiveness of these actions in preventing a large-scale epidemic, may be instructive for other countries,” Wang and his co-authors wrote.

Within the last five weeks, Wang said, the Taiwan epidemic command center rapidly implemented those 124 action items, including border control from the air and sea, case identification using new data and technology, quarantine of suspicious cases, educating the public while fighting misinformation, negotiating with other countries — and formulating policies for schools and businesses to follow.

Big Data Analytics

The authors note that Taiwan integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics. That allowed them case identification by generating real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms.

Taipei also used Quick Response (QR) code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history in the last 14 days. People who had not traveled to high-risk areas were sent a health declaration border pass via SMS for faster immigration clearance; those who had traveled to high-risk areas were quarantined at home and tracked through their mobile phones to ensure that they stayed home during the incubation period.

The country also instituted a toll-free hotline for citizens to report suspicious symptoms in themselves or others. As the disease progressed, the government called on major cities to establish their own hotlines so that the main hotline would not become jammed.

Some might say that because Taiwan is such a small country — about 19 times smaller than Texas — it is easier to mobilize during emergencies. Yet Taiwan is particularly challenged by its proximity to China and the fact that 850,000 of its citizens reside on the mainland; another 400,000 work there. Taiwan had 2.71 million visitors from China last year.

So when the WHO was notified on Dec. 31, 2019, of a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China, Taiwanese officials began to board planes and assess passengers on direct flights from Wuhan for fever and pneumonia symptoms before passengers could deplane.

As early as Jan. 5, notification was expanded to include any individual who had traveled to Wuhan in the past 14 days and had a fever or symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection at the point of entry. Suspected cases were screened for 26 viruses, including SARS and MERS. Passengers displaying symptoms were quarantined at home and assessed whether medical attention at a hospital was necessary.

What the U.S. Could Learn

One of Wang’s co-authors, Robert H. Brook, M.D., ScD., of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said Washington could learn a great deal from Taiwan’s so-far successful management of the virus.

“In Taiwan, diverse political parties were willing to work together to produce an immediate response to the danger,” said Brook, also of the nonprofit RAND Corporation. “Transparency was critical and frequent communication to the public from a trusted official was paramount to reducing public panic.”

The other co-author of their study is Chun Y. Ng, MBA, MPH, of The New School for Leadership in Health Care, Koo Foundation Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center, Taipei, Taiwan.

Brook said Taiwan got out ahead of the epidemic by setting up a physical command center to facilitate rapid communications. The command center set the price of masks and used government funds and military personnel to increase mask production. By Jan. 20, the Taiwan CDC announced that it had a stockpile of 44 million surgical masks, 1.9 million N95 masks and 1,100 negative pressure isolation rooms.

“In a country as complex as the United States,” Brook said, “there needs to be a sharing of intelligence on a real-time basis among states and the federal government so that action is not delayed by going through formal channels.”

Beth Duff-Brown became the Communications Manager at the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, Stanford University.

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