With COVID-19 spreading rapidly this spring and local health workers facing surveillance gaps, researcher John Brownstein knew it was time to redeploy a technology he originally helped build to track another potential pandemic trigger — influenza.

covid-near you map“There’s so much mild (COVID-19) illness in the community going unchecked, and it represents a huge amount of missing information,” Brownstein, PhD, chief innovation officer at Children’s Hospital Boston, told The Nation’s Health. “We’re flying blind in terms of our ability to understand the path it’s taking through our communities.”

To help fill the void, Brownstein and colleagues looked to Flu Near You, a crowdsourced disease surveillance tool they launched in 2012 that collects and maps self-reported flu-like symptoms. With research showing Flu Near You often captured data mirroring more traditional surveillance methods, Brownstein said it made sense to launch a sister tool to track the novel coronavirus, especially with so many cases going undiagnosed and contact tracing woefully behind.

So with help from volunteers at tech companies that included Google and Airbnb, COVID Near You launched in mid-March, with a goal of giving U.S. public health officials and residents another — and perhaps quicker — way of pinpointing ongoing and potential hotspots.

Within a month, COVID Near You amassed more than 800,000 voluntary participants across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Brownstein reported, which far surpasses Flu Near You’s participant high of 400,000. As of April, work was underway to build an accompanying public health dashboard, expected by June, to help local officials access and use the data.

Continue reading this story from the June 2020 issue of The Nation's Health.

Photo courtesy COVID Near You