Hillsborough and Pinellas County residents will be able to view areas where people are experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19 with a new online program from the University of South Florida.
Researchers are using data from a survey residents fill out to map reports of symptoms by zip code.
Testing is so limited right now that many people with coronavirus symptoms still don't qualify because they don't meet other factors, according to Thomas Unnasch, distinguished professor in the USF College of Public Health and director of the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research.
He said that's where this surveillance tool could help county leaders and health workers.
"We may be able to identify areas where there are people with high levels of symptoms that are being underserved by the testing and then try to direct the testing to those areas where we may have a problem," said Unnasch.
Unnasch said the tool could be especially helpful as the economy starts to reopen, when contact tracing and quickly isolating cases will be essential.
"Having a method that’s out there that allows you to sensitively and rapidly detect areas where there may be a problem is going to be really important in allowing us to eliminate any second waves that might occur as we re-open" he explained.
Researchers launched the surveillance program on April 15 and have so far received about 150 survey responses, which Unnasch noted is not enough for the tool to be really effective.
“Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence, which means if you’re not hearing anything from some place you don’t really know if you don’t have a problem there or if you’re just not having anyone who is responding,” he said.
Unnasch is encouraging all residents to fill out the survey, even those who aren’t experiencing symptoms associated with the coronavirus, to give researchers a more accurate picture of the situation in the Tampa Bay area.
The anonymous survey takes about two minutes to complete. In addition to asking questions about current symptoms, it asks about underlying health conditions and some other demographic information. Unnasch said respondents’ personal information will not be shared.
He said USF is also working with local governments and hospitals to incorporate data from people who report symptoms to their call centers.
While the program is limited to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties right now, Unnasch said they’re meeting with other area counties like Pasco, Polk and Manatee to expand its reach.
USF’s platform is adapted from a program developed by the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust.
Symptom-based surveillance programs are limited in their ability to fully capture the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community because people who have it and don’t show symptoms, or haven’t started showing symptoms, can still transmit it to others.
But Unnasch said until testing has expanded to the point that any member of the community can quickly find out if they have the virus, prioritizing people with symptoms and their contacts is the best way to contain the spread.
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