Photo by Flickr user Marco Verch, used under a Creative Commons license.
Even as talk of lifting some stay-at-home orders begins, we’re still in an environment where there’s no vaccine available for a disease that spreads between people even if they don’t show symptoms.
So public health and government officials will remain watchful for signs that new COVID-19 hotspots could flare up.
A team of Johns Hopkins University engineers, epidemiologists and physicians came together to build an app that’s part of a research study to help that awareness, and it has a way for everyone over the age of 13 to contribute.
The mobile app, called COVID Control, collects temperature readings from participants once a day, since fever is one of the primary symptoms of the disease. Then, using spatial science analytics and machine learning, the team can identify if there’s an increase in fever in a certain area, which could help indicate where there’s a high probability of being a COVID-19 hotspot. While it won’t be an official confirmation of confirmed cases, it can help officials implement necessary procedures before there’s a big spike. And this all comes before officials see an uptick in testing or people seeking care.
“Our idea is to be on the leading edge of that, before people realize there is a hotspot,” said Frank C. Curriero, a professor in the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health’s epidemiology department and the director of the Spatial Science for Public Health Center.
The team that built it has sought to make it as user-friendly as possible, requiring only a household thermometer and about 10 seconds to fill out the temperature and other symptoms. Now the focus is on scale: More data means more ability to track the spread.
“We want people to continue to use it even when you’re healthy,” said Ralph Etienne-Cummings, chair of the JHU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “By continuing to use it, we get the type of information to help us make the predictions stronger.”
The app also has a dashboard that shows data like how many people are reporting fever in a given country, and the results of the analysis that shows potential hotspots. It visualizes this through maps.
“Until we have an effective vaccine and implement a widespread vaccination program, this app is going to be useful because there is still going to be that vulnerability to new outbreaks,” said Robert D. Stevens, an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine and neurology and associate director of the Precision Medicine Center of Excellence for Neurocritical Care at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Working with the three leaders, the development was completed by Amparo Güemes, Soumyajit Ray, Khaled Aboumerhi and John Rattray, all of whom are Ph.D. candidates from Etienne-Cummings’ lab. The data analytics were provided by spatial epidemiologists from the Spatial Science for Public Health Center including Timothy Shields, Anton Kvit, Brendan Fries, Anne Corrigan and Michael R. Desjardins.
Etienne-Cummings said the environment at Johns Hopkins made it possible to bring together a team from across disciplines, not only bridging tech and data but also medical care. And Curriero said they’re putting a priority on helping to address the pandemic.
“Having the right expertise on the team made a big difference both on the development of the app itself as well as setting up the analytics,” he said.
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