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How Will We Track COVID-19 Symptoms As Americans Return To Work? An App Attempts To Identify Hotspots

Laura Cowan

By Laura Cowan

Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.

MI Safe Start, Michigan reopening economy, Governer Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan economy reopening

How honest can we expect all workers to be about symptoms of COVID-19 as they return to work they need for economic security and healthcare? How will the state track and prevent further outbreaks? Are employers or the government assuring worker job security when workers fall ill so that they can afford to miss work? These are some of the questions we've been mulling as Michigan Governor Whitmer announced her 6-phase plan for safely reopening the Michigan economy. disastrous employment numbers, including 48% of Detroiters losing their job in recent months.

Public health and technology researchers, faculty, and students at the University of Michigan have developed an app, called MI Symptoms, to track worker symptoms and help officials identify emerging hotspots as coronavirus enters a new stage of the outbreak. The technology is accessed via mobile device but is centralized, not a mobile app, and does not do contact tracing or track users' movements, according to its creators. But will users give honest answers if they are not directly entered from temperature readings?

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App Tracks Worker Symptoms & COVID-19 Exposure at Work

Here's how the tech works: According to the University of Michigan, the new COVID-19 app tool includes "a COVID-19 symptom checklist web application and COVID-19 dashboard that provides real time, visualized data for officials to easily identify areas where the new coronavirus presents a higher risk, and for the public to understand the pandemic status in their community and across the state." 

The web app MI Symptoms is supposed to be used on a daily basis as Michiganders head back to work. Some employers may require employees to use it to help identify potential cases of COVID-19 before they spread. 

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The MI Symptoms app asks questions such as: "How are you feeling? Is anyone in your household sick? Have you been around anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?" Users manually enter their body temperature and review a list of COVID-19 symptoms, checking off any they are currently experiencing.

"This is purpose-built to support the state of Michigan's reopening in a safe, measured way," says Dan Maletta, executive director of information technology at Michigan Engineering who co-led the web app's development and says the focus was on helping officials track symptoms to inform reopening the state's struggling economy.  

"We need to find safe ways to reengage with our communities so that we can mitigate the spread of disease and risk while still allowing us to resume some level of economic activity. In order to do that, we need real-time information on the movement of the epidemic throughout the community so local and state officials can make informed decisions on how and where to reengage," says Emily Martin, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health.

The MI Symptoms dashboard lets people look up the current risk phase of their region and see some of the underlying indicators that contributed to officials' determinations for closures including percent positive tests and virus rates per million residents. The MI Safe Start Map for health officials includes both levels and trends in indicators such as numbers of new cases, deaths and positive tests that reflect the most up-to-date data distributed to the School of Public Health from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

MI Symptoms also tracks health system capacity and public health capacity, such as availability of tests and trained contract-tracing personnel. According to the University of Michigan, "the public-facing dashboard uses a color-coded map of the state with breakdowns by region and county. Each area is labeled with the current status of the virus to show where the coronavirus is most active and where it is more under control."

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Reopening States & Containing Virus Hot Spots on a Rolling Basis

We're seeing a number of public officials from school districts to state officials release surveys or early-stage plans on how to cope with an ongoing coronavirus epidemic, which looks to drag on for years, potentially. The key, as the MI Symptoms project so aptly points out, is to help target and prevent spread in new hot spots to avoid further state-wide shutdowns, and this needs to be planned for on a longterm basis.

The University of Michigan School of Public Health has been working closely with the Michigan departments of Health and Human Services and Labor and Economic Opportunity, to model and forecast data that inform state closures, and to come up with strategies to mitigate risk when reopening workplaces. 

"We're using a precision population health approach, using data, key public health indicators and technology to help the state manage this pandemic and reengage the economy safely," says project lead Sharon Kardia, professor of epidemiology and associate dean for education at U-M's School of Public Health. "My hope for the people of the state of Michigan is that we can go back to work safely, that we can actually enjoy some of the beautiful summer that's coming." 

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Security was paramount throughout development, Maletta said. "We have taken measures to isolate the information coming through the app and separate it from any personally identifiable user data," he said. "We will also only store the most anonymized version of data." 

More than 80 staff, faculty members and students from engineering, information and public health contributed to the app and dashboard development. The team has been working since April 20 on the project.

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