When COVID-19 cases were surging in Austin, Texas last June and hospitals were counting down to the last bed, public health officials were struggling to make head or tail of how to respond to rising cases. Even as technology enhanced a significant amount of public health related work during the COVID-19 pandemic, one piece of technology served as a major barrier — the fax machine. This 19th century piece of equipment, rendered useless by the advent and spread of information technology, continues to be used in several hospitals and government-run facilities. With the technology slowing things down in a moment of crisis, it might just be time to kill the fax.

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As COVID-19 tightened its grip on Austin, these fax machines went into overdrive, spitting out page after page results of COVID-19 tests. “We were probably getting thousands of cases a day that we were responding to. It was madness,” according to Janet Pichnette, the chief epidemiologist for Austin Public Health who spoke to Reuters. “You cannot fight a pandemic using 19-th century technology,” she said. The fax machine dates back to 1842. It was invented by Scottish scientist Alexander Bain.  

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Hospital officials were combing through stacks of printed facsimiles that at times piled up to 18 centimeters thick. The hospital staffers had to weed out duplicates and track down any and all missing information. From those, the results were manually entered into Austin’s tracking system.

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The fax machine was first patented nearly 175 years ago. Since then, these have come to be used in nearly all large organisations. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, scenes of people laboriously tiding through document after document really slowed things down. The inefficiency of the fax machine has already forced many government departments to stop use of the machine. But some offices continue to use these. Many hope, the coronavirus pandemic could consign the fax machine to history. 

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For now, the Netherlands Ministry of Health has already decided to relegate the use of fax machines. In New Brunswick, a province in Canada, a bottleneck of around 1,500 faxes reportedly left people waiting for days to find their COVID-19 results. Similar incidents were also reported in Toronto. Efforts to do away with the fax machine are also underway in Japan.