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App helps scientists track COVID-19 symptoms

COVID Symptom Tracker is helping scientists track coronavirus symptoms in Texas.

A new free research app aims to record users’ COVID19 symptoms, so scientists can learn more about the new virus, understand how it’s spreading and determine hotspots so states would be better suited to focus their resources.

The app COVID Symptom Tracker will also give the user a snapshot of what is going on in their communities.

“Without access to testing there is no way for us to really get ahead and have an understanding of how the virus is spreading,” said Shreela Sharma, PhD, professor of epidemiology and disease control at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “It's really very much a citizen science approach to drive public health decision making.”

Sharma said she and her team were looking for a way to track COVID-19 symptoms in Texas, when they found the work of Andrew Chan, MD, MPH, a physician-epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We're researching other apps out there, other technology out there and just given the rigor of this app in terms of privacy of data that is important in this day and age, especially if you're tracking health-related information, and then the other side of it being that it just takes literally one to three minutes and every day takes me maybe 20 seconds to complete, it makes it really easy,” Sharma said. “Ease of information is another piece that's important. I think those two were our critical criteria that allow for ease of dissemination of the app and to collect the data on a regular basis.”

Chan worked with scientists and developers on mobile technology to improve health. He said COVID-19 changed the focus of that research for the time being.

“We developed with our partners in the U.K. (United Kingdom) an app which basically anybody in the public can download to their phone, which allows them to report how they're feeling, if they feel well or if they feel sick, and also if they've been feeling sick, whether they've been evaluated for COVID-19,” Chan said. “We can then use this information to deliver back in real-time information about how communities are currently feeling and whether there might be potential hotspots of the disease.”

Chan said the team of physicians and scientists in Boston, are looking and analyzing country-wide data on a daily basis.

“But more importantly, with Dr. Sharma's team looking at it at a statewide level, trying to again, pin down in particular what communities are particularly worrisome,” Chan said. “Because there's a lot of people developing symptoms and also trying to understand in those areas of the state where potentially there are efforts underfoot to try to loosen, for example, social isolation. Are we seeing a worrisome rebound in symptoms?”

Sharma said she believed by helping to identify hotspots, the symptom tracker can assist in deploying resources across the state, whether that’s testing or care.

Chan said his team was very conscious about data security.

“One thing I would mention is we don't require anyone to reveal any private information about themselves,” Chan said. “You can go into the app and create a profile for yourself that allows you to share data anonymously because ultimately we want data from as many people as possible. But ultimately, we've also been interested in capturing data from people who are willing to actually provide more information, so that we can contact them if we want to in the future or if they're already part of another study. We can link the data they provided as part of another study back with the data collected in the app. So there's a wide range of levels of participation in terms of what people want to be able to do.”

Scientists say they’re counting on people to honestly answer questions on the app.

“I think we owe it to each other as a community to be as helpful and honest as possible because ultimately it will help, you know, your neighbors who will help your family, but it will also help yourself, because ultimately, yes, you are reporting this information for scientists,” Chan said.

In its press release about the app, UTHealth wrote that researchers, “will collect the de-identified data for the state of Texas based on ZIP Codes.”

Read the answers to frequently asked questions here.

“The success of this project initiative really depends on people using the app. If we don’t have good usage of the app in terms of the number of Texans participating, we are not going to be able to use it for public health decision making,” said Sharma in the press release.

The app is free on Apple’s App Store or Google Play.

UTHealth says after users download the app, they will be asked to create an account and answer a few questions about their current health. Including if they’ve been tested for COVID-19 and give daily updates on how they are feeling.

“We're very interested in really trying to understand the impact of COVID-19 on people in the community,” Chan said.

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