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One-Stop-Shop Apps for COVID-19 Information

| Alexander D. Zeng

COVID-19-related web applications have been popping up from the very start of the pandemic, and many, including Apple and others, have stepped up to contribute to the developments. The majority of COVID-related applications attempt to tackle the effort of contact tracing in order to get a better grasp on where the virus is spreading. Many of them have taken on a variety of approaches to tackle the issue – some apps are optional while others have mandated downloads. The MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker goes into an in-depth evaluation of the 25 applications it was able to identify. For example, Turkey requires all residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 to download Hayat Eve Sığar and share their data with the police, while India has become the only democracy that is making its app Aarogya Setu mandatory for millions of its people. On the other end of the spectrum are apps like Austria’s Stopp Corona and Iceland’s Rakning C-19, which are entirely voluntary to use.

Like many other players in the market, Apple also plans to build out a contact-tracing application in partnership with Google. However in the meantime, Apple released a US-focused website and app simply titled COVID-19 at the end of March. The goal of the website and app is to “help people stay informed and take the proper steps to protect their health during the spread of COVID-19.” To achieve this, the website notes that Apple provides users with a Screening Tool to help assess their condition and risks, and supplements that with a variety of COVID-19-related information. Contact tracing is not part of the app and website’s functions.

According to the press release, the Screening Tool can be used to evaluate your own condition or complete the screening on someone else’s behalf. Before diving into the questionnaire, users are shown a list of symptoms that would constitute an emergency and are asked to contact 911 if any of them are present. Once emergencies are ruled out, a list of comprehensive questions asks users the usual symptom and travel-related questions, but also goes into more detail with questions such as “do you work in a medical facility?” and “do you live in a long-term care facility?” At the end of the questionnaire, users are presented with recommendations on next steps, which for some may include testing for COVID-19, or reaching out to a healthcare professional. When using the app, the questionnaire answers and recommendations are stored in the app and can be accessed at a later date. When using the website, users will instead see an option to print their results for their records. In either scenario, Apple states that it does not collect answers from your screening, and only collects website/app usage information to improve usability.

The website and application were developed by Apple in partnership with the CDC, The White House, FEMA and local state governments in “a direct response to President Trump’s call for an all-of-America approach and will help Americans heed CDC guidelines and self-isolate to limit COVID-19 transmission.” Once a user selects their home state, they receive a summary of official guidance, such as quarantine and social distancing measures, applicable to them. The option to ‘Learn More’ takes users directly to state government websites with fully expanded explanations.

According to the press release, while using the website or app, users will see additional links that include resources for unemployment help, instructions for making cloth face coverings, latest updates featured on the Apple News app, and mental health crisis help lines. Furthermore, if the Screening Tool recommends reaching out to a healthcare professional for guidance, users are presented with a variety of telehealth applications. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, the site “works well when using a screen reader” and the app is accessible to those with disabilities.

The app and website purport to go beyond focusing on just the virus and stress the importance of maintaining good physical and mental health. It reminds users to exercise, eat well and reach out to a health professional for non-COVID related matters as well. The press release indicates that the website lists strategies for staying in good mental health while working from home, going to work, or dealing with unemployment is also presented. Finally, users are encouraged to connect with friends and family as a way of supporting one’s mental health – a timely callout for May’s Mental Health Awareness Month.

Apple’s website and app can be found here: https://www.apple.com/covid19.

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