University App Could Help With COVID-19 Contact Tracing

University at Buffalo researchers are developing an app called PocketCare+ that they say could help public health officials track and prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as future infectious disease outbreaks.

by Niagara Gazette / May 4, 2020

(TNS) — To slow the spread of COVID-19, individuals who test positive are asked to retrace the people and places they recently interacted with.

This task, called contact tracing, isn’t easy. Days get mixed up. Meetings are forgotten. There’s no foolproof way to remember everyone.

It’s also difficult to determine how a person was infected, whether they unknowingly touched contaminated objects — known to medical professionals as "fomites" — or if the transmission occurred person-to-person via respiratory droplets.

To fill these information gaps, University at Buffalo researchers are developing an app called PocketCare+ (pronounced “pocket care plus”) that they say could help public health officials track and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, as well as future infectious disease outbreaks.

The app is believed to be among the first that deals with both direct virus transmission (person-to- person contact) and indirect virus transmission (contact with fomites). It is designed to significantly reduce the time and cost associated with contact tracing.

Here is how it works. A user downloads the app, which uses their smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to measure each time the user is within a short distance of other people who have downloaded the app. The phone’s GPS technology marks the location of every encounter, as well as other places the user visited.

If an app user tests positive, that person’s health care provider would access the data of the patient and then trigger an automated contact tracing process during which other app users who had a close encounter with the infected person and/or fomites will automatically receive a push notification on their phones.

App users receiving the notice then know to closely monitor their health, self-quarantine and alert medical professionals if they develop symptoms.

“PocketCare+ has a tremendous potential to protect individuals and communities, especially the front-line workers, during this pandemic,” says the project’s leader, Chunming Qiao, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could also better prepare various businesses, organizations and governments in their plans to re-open.”

The team is seeking additional guidance from epidemiologists, public health professionals, social workers and others who can offer diverse opinions and expertise to make PocketCare+ more effective, as well as app developers and web designers to continuously improve PocketCare+, which will be available soon on the Google Play store and Apple’s App Store.

To learn more about PocketCare+ and receive updates, please visit: https://pocketcareplus.cse.buffalo.edu.

©2020 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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