Launched last March, the COVID Symptom Tracker app has led to important findings about the COVID-19 pandemic. The app is the data collection vehicle for the COVID Symptom Study, developed by Zoe Global, a health science company, in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital and King’s College in London. Today, more than 4 million people — making this the largest study of its kind in the world — are participating by taking just a minute each day to report on their health.
The app is being used to find out where the COVID hot spots are, new symptoms to look out for, and might be used as a planning tool to target quarantines, send ventilators and provide real-time data to plan for future outbreaks. Just last month, researchers released a study that identified six types of COVID-19 based on symptom clusters, which can help predict who is more likely to require respiratory care in a hospital.
“Data is our most powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19,” COVID Symptom Study lead researcher Tim Spector said in an interview. “We urge everyone to get in the habit of using the app daily to log their health over the coming months, helping us to stay ahead of any local hotspots or a second wave of infections.”
The COVID Symptom Tracker app is available for free for both iPhone and Android device users. To download, type “COVID Symptom Study” into the search bar in your app store. Make sure that it is the correct app by tapping on the name to open the app window and verifying the developer is Zoe Global Limited. Once you open the app, you will agree to Zoe’s use of your information with the assurance that any information you share will not be used for commercial purposes. You will then create your account with an email and password.
The app presents several questions for you to answer, including whether or not you are a healthcare worker, a series of demographic questions such as year of birth, sex, race, ethnicity, height, weight and zip code, and a number of health-related questions. Your answers help researchers identify risk factors associated with COVID-19. The next section gives researchers information about how much time you spend outside your home and whether you wear a face mask to help understand the impact of social distancing and face masks. This set of questions is optional. You’ll now have the option to answer a few questions about your diet and lifestyle since the onset of the pandemic last March. And that’s it for the background information.
The final screen asks how you are feeling, normal or not quite right, and that’s what you will answer daily. You may set up profiles and check-ins for other people in your household. You’ll also see the number of people with COVID symptoms in your county for that day. I urge you to participate and help drive this important research. As of last count, less than 500 people were participating in Utah.
In other app developments, it appears that U.S. public health officials are finally preparing to release track and trace apps built on Google’s and Apple’s Exposure Notification System. In a blog statement last week, Dave Burke, vice president of engineering for Google, said that in the United States, 20 states and territories are exploring ENS-based apps and he expects to see the first ones rolling out “over the coming weeks.” Apps will use privacy-preserving randomly generated numbers also known as keys, which in turn generate temporary IDs that are transmitted between devices using Bluetooth. Apps using this system are not permitted to collect or use location data from the device, and user identities are not revealed to any parties.
A new contributor to the system is the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which has offered to house the servers for the keys with its partner Microsoft. The big benefit of having a single platform for comparing keys for possible COVID-19 exposure is the data will work across state lines, eliminating the need for public health agencies to find a way to share data on their own. It also means that if you travel to another state, you will be quickly notified if you may have been exposed to the virus. The app will send you an alert and provide information on next steps.
Utah pursued its own app independent of the Google-Apple system, “Healthy Together,” early in the pandemic, but removed its tracking feature and saw little uptake in use. With new cross-state communication included in all ENS-based apps, we can hope that state officials will move in that direction.