University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston researchers are making use of a new smartphone app that monitors and tracks COVID-19 symptoms to help public health officials plan for future outbreaks.
It’s part of a global research project involving UTHealth School of Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, King’s College London, and Stanford University School of Medicine.
“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 Dr. Shreela Sharma, professor of epidemiology and disease control at UT Health 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 it has been downloaded onto a mobile device, participants will 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.”
A study published by Nature Medicine found the COVID-19 Symptom Tracker to be effective in predicting infections in the 2.5 million people who used it between March 24 and April 21. They saw repeatedly that anosmia, or the loss of smell, and the loss of taste were the most common initial symptoms that someone was infected with COVID-19.
“We have had success in identifying potential hot spots about five days before seeing a rise in confirmed case loads,” said Dr. Andrew Chan, professor of Medicine at Harvard University and chief of clinical and translational epidemiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This has helped local governments plan for a potential surge in hospital visits.”
While the app does collect symptom data and uses satellite tracking, Chan explained that it does not require personal information to work.
“App users are invited to share only as much information as they feel comfortable,” he said. “We ask for ZIP code data so we can use that information to map where there might be potential outbreaks, however, we do not share any identifiable information such as names with anyone.”
Sharma said the success of the project 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,” she said.
There were more than 4,000 downloads of the app in Texas in the first week of its launch in April.