Considerations for an Individual-Level Population Notification System for Pandemic Response: A Review and Prototype Academic Article uri icon

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  • The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, spread worldwide after its emergence in China. Whether rich or poor, all nations are struggling to cope with this new global health crisis. The speed of the threat’s emergence and the quick response required from public health authorities and the public itself makes evident the need for a major reform in pandemic surveillance and notification systems. The development and implementation of a graded, individual-level pandemic notification system could be an effective tool to combat future threats of epidemics. This paper describes a prototype model of such a notification system and its potential advantages and challenges for implementation. Similar to other emergency alerts, this system would include a number of threat levels (level 1-5) with a higher level indicating increasing severity and intensity of safety measures (eg, level 1: general hygiene, level 2: enhanced hygiene, level 3: physical distancing, level 4: shelter in place, and level 5: lockdown). The notifications would be transmitted to cellular devices via text message (for lower threat levels) or push notification (for higher threat levels). The notification system would allow the public to be informed about the threat level in real time and act accordingly in an organized manner. New Zealand and the United Kingdom have recently launched similar alert systems designed to coordinate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response more efficiently. Implementing such a system, however, faces multiple challenges. Extensive preparation and coordination among all levels of government and relevant sectors are required. Additionally, such systems may be effective primarily in countries where there exists at least moderate trust in government. Advance and ongoing public education about the nature of the system and its steps would be an essential part of the system, such that all members of the public understand the meaning of each step in advance, similar to what has been established in systems for other emergency responses. This educational component is of utmost importance to minimize adverse public reaction and unintended consequences. The use of mass media and local communities could be considered where mobile phone penetration is low. The implementation of such a notification system would be more challenging in developing countries for several reasons, including inadequate technology, limited use of data plans, high population density, poverty, mistrust in government, and tendency to ignore or failure to understand the warning messages. Despite the challenges, an individual-level pandemic notification system could provide added benefits by giving an additional route for notification that would be complementary to existing platforms.


  • Sakib, Mohammad Nazmus
  • Butt, Zahid A
  • Morita, Plinio Pelegrini
  • Oremus, Mark
  • Fong, Geoffrey T
  • Hall, Peter A

publication date

  • June 5, 2020