Is that nagging cough a sign of a COVID-19 infection, or just a spring allergy?
You could go to a doctor, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, getting an appointment might be difficult, or even needlessly increase your risk of infection. That’s why a growing number of technology companies are offering online tools that use simple question-and-answer tests to assess the likelihood that someone is infected with the virus.
The Massachusetts state government has partnered with the maker of one such tool, Boston-based Buoy Health. The company offers a website where nervous people can get guidance on whether they may have contracted the disease, or are at high risk of catching it.
Alpha Software of Burlington is also unveiling a COVID diagnostic app developed in conjunction with New York City cardiologist Warren J. Wexelman. “The initial idea was diagnosis for heart disease," said Alpha Software’s chief executive Richard Rabins. "Then we pivoted because of this crazy horrible thing.”
And on Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also launched its own online diagnostic tool.
Such tools, of course, can only offer guidance — they aren’t a substitute for getting tested for the virus.
The Alpha app, which the company put together in about a week, collects no personally identifiable information about the user. Instead, it asks simple questions about age, gender. and lifestyle. For instance, has the user been in contact with anyone who recently traveled outside the United States? Does he or she drive to work or take public transportation? What does he or she do for a living? Does he or she have any preexisting medical problems? And how is the user feeling right now?
The software compares the answer against CDC guidelines to estimate the risk that the user might have been infected. If a user’s answers hit too many high-risk categories, he may get a message saying that it is likely he’s infected. But even if the app assesses the risk as moderate or low, it delivers reminders of the best ways to avoid infection.
Instead of being a downloadable app, the service is hosted online. Wexelman said that makes it easier to update with the latest information about the virus and its effects. For example, it was recently learned that infected people often lose their sense of taste or smell. A question about this was added to the software just a couple of days ago, Wexelman said, and similar updates will be added as necessary.
The Buoy Health service works in much the same way. In addition, it uses an artificial intelligence feature that tries to go beyond a COVID-19 assessment. When used by someone who has probably not been infected by COVID-19 but still feels unwell, the program tries to figure out other potential reasons.
Buoy Health chief executive Andrew Le said that he and his colleagues began working on the symptom checker site weeks ago. “In late January, we were seeing how quickly it was spreading in China and how many people were dying," said Le. "And we said, this is coming to the United States and it’s not going to be good.”
The site was launched in early February, and about 21,000 people used the service that month. Le said that the data they provided accurately predicted spikes in COVID infections in 12 US states.