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Tracking COVID-19: New research app will help trace the spread of the virus

COVID Symptom Tracker app
COVID Symptom Tracker app

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the U.S., a new free research app is hoping to slow the outbreak of the disease by tracking symptoms of millions across the country. To bring the app home to Texans, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have joined the national research project led by Harvard University.

UTHealth School of Public Health, in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, King’s College London, and Stanford University School of Medicine, will now be able to collect data from the general public and monitor COVID-19 symptoms through the app, COVID Symptom Tracker.  

“Given the lack of testing in both Texas and the nation, we really don’t have any data in regards to the community transmission of COVID-19,” said Shreela Sharma, PhD, professor of epidemiology and disease control at UTHealth School of Public Health. “It is too late to do widespread testing, and symptom tracking is another way to estimate community spread.”

The app is available for free download on Apple’s App store or Google Play through https://go.uth.edu/COVIDTracker. Once the app is downloaded onto a mobile device, participants will then be prompted to create an account and answer a few questions about their current health, whether they have been tested for COVID-19, and give daily updates on how they are feeling.

Additionally, the app includes questions for immunocompromised people such as cancer patients and survivors, or for those with ongoing chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Data collected from the app is protected and will only be used for researchers to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

The app will not provide any health care tips or medical advice, but if symptoms progress or become worse, it will prompt users to see their local health care provider. “The great thing about using the app is it will allow us to see how symptoms are progressing and where they are getting worse,” said Bijal Balasubramanian, PhD, associate professor and regional dean of the School of Public Health in Dallas. “We hope to share this information with public health policy makers so they are able to make research-based decisions that will be best for their communities.”

“We have had great success with the app here in Boston, and we are excited to see how this can help the people of Texas,” said 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 know the reality is that there is a lack of available and timely testing of COVID-19. This may be a better way to find out where hot spots of spread are, new symptoms to look out for, and use as a planning tool to target quarantines, send ventilators and medical equipment, and provide real-time data to plan for future outbreaks. By also tracking in real time the experience of health care workers, we can do a better job of understanding how to protect our first responders to this crisis.”

Researchers at UTHealth will collect the de-identified data for the state of Texas based on ZIP codes. The ZIP code-level data will then help researchers and public health officials make decisions that may help slow or stop the spread of the virus. “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 number of Texans participating we are not going to be able to use it for public health decision making,” said Sharma.

The app has already launched in the U.K. and has over two million downloads. There have been over 4,000 downloads in Texas since its launch last week.

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