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New COVID-19 symptom tracker aims to find hot spots in rural Alabama

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

The University of Alabama at Birmingham released a COVID-19 symptom tracker on Wednesday that is meant to identify hot spots of where the virus is spreading in the state, especially in rural areas. is where people can go to take a 3-5 minute survey that asks simple questions about their symptoms and other underlying medical conditions. Even those who feel fine now are encouraged to take the survey daily so Alabama health officials can track the virus’ progression.

“We are taking a look at COVID-19 symptoms alongside underlying medical conditions to provide public health officials an in-depth analysis of how rural areas are affected in real time,” said Sue Feldman, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Health Professions and UAB School of Medicine, in a press release.

The survey asks about how an individual is feeling that day, current symptoms are, existing health conditions and basic social factors like what ZIP code they live in.

“As people present more symptoms in these communities, public health officials will be able to look at populations in specific ZIP codes, gaining timely information to help identify priorities during the course of the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Sarah Parcak, Ph.D., professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, in the press release.

Feldman said this tool will be great for health officials in the state because it will give them up-to-date information on areas of the state that are harder to reach.

“What this will do is get at those very difficult areas to reach and give public health officials that information without having to go into the communities to gather the information themselves,” Feldman said.

Surveys similar to HelpBeatCOVID19 have already started in other parts of the world, including Britain and Israel, according to the New York Times.

The paper reports that three groups in the U.S. – led by Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York – are now trying to attract enough survey participants nationwide to detect impending hot spots as well.

HelpBeatCOVID19 includes an additional focus beyond symptoms and health to other contributing factors. This includes social factors, such as neighborhood characteristics, economic factors and others, that may become key in understanding and acting upon information gathered from the questionnaire.

Feldman says that having this trackable data readily available for health officials to view will hopefully keep more people out of emergency departments and save valuable medical resources.

For those who don’t have Internet access or a computer to fill out the survey, Feldman said people will be able to fill it out via text message and there will also be a 1-800 number they can call into.

Feldman told ADN that they do not have plans of sending daily emails or text remainders to people to take the survey because they don’t want to overwhelm people with too much information.

“We hope that people will make completing the survey part of their morning or evening routine,” Feldman said.

As of Wednesday evening, Alabama had more than 1,100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with the only counties without any confirmed cases were the rural counties of  Perry, Barbour, Coffee, Henry and Geneva.

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