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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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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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

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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.