Coronavirus

Rhode Island doctors created an app to calculate the risk of COVID-19. Here’s why.

“Some things that were safe when the case counts were very low may not be safe to do anymore.”

Boston -05/01/2020-A pedestrian wearing a mask passes through Boston City Hall PLaza with Faneuil Hall as the backdrop. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh gave an update relating to COVID-19 outside Boston City Hall, where he urged everyone to wear face masks when they are outside in Boston. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro) John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Wondering if it’s safe to head to that gym class? Or if that planned gathering of friends is still a good idea?

There’s now an app that will answer those questions for you, calculating your risk of contracting COVID-19 by taking into account the location, activity, and measures like face coverings that may be part of your plans.

The idea for the app, MyCOVIDRisk, came during a conversation between Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and director of the Brown Lifespan Center for Digital Health, and her colleague Dr. Liz Goldberg.

Like many physicians during the coronavirus pandemic, the two emergency room doctors had been fielding questions from friends and family members all summer about whether certain activities were safe or not.

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“Then both she and I had things that we wanted to do and we were trying to figure out whether or not they were safe,” Ranney told Boston.com. “And Liz said, ‘Well, I wish there was just an app to do this.’ And we looked at each other and we said we should create one.”

Through the Brown center, the two doctors worked with scientists from around the world to create a model that would calculate the risk of infection based on suggested activities. 

The effort to create the app reflected the needs of everyone in the community — doctors included, Ranney said —  who have been struggling to figure out how safe or unsafe situations might be because of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

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“It was really this labor of love by me and Dr. Goldberg,” she said. “It’s how so much of our country’s COVID-19 response has gone. It’s been done by folks that see a need and are willing to spend time and a little effort to do things that you wish that the federal government were doing.”

Location is the first question the app poses when determining your risk, taking into account the number of positive coronavirus cases per 100,000 in the area where the activity will take place.

The app pulls the data on the number of positive cases from a national data set, Ranney said. 

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“This is important of course if you’re traveling or thinking about going to an activity somewhere where you don’t usually live,” she said. “Or if you’re not really sure what your state or county or town positivity rate is …

“Then the next question is asking what kind of activity you’re going to do be doing,” she explained. “And that matters because if you’re doing something like going to a gym, you’re breathing more and more likely to either inhale or exhale virus if there’s someone infected. We ask about how many people are going to be there, because that will change the chance of getting exposed to an infection. And we ask about whether it’s indoor or outdoor, and if you’re indoor whether the windows are open because that also changes your chances of being exposed.”

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After you put in additional information, including whether or not people will be wearing face coverings during the event or activity, the app provides the calculation of risk, based on the current scientific data on how the infection is transmitted. 

If it comes out high, the app gives you a chance to change the risk assessment by making alterations to your plan by, for example, reducing the number of people at the gathering. Or if it’s an indoor activity, you can opt to open the windows or stay inside for a shorter period of time.

This screen shot shows some of the options on the app to help determine transmission risk.

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“Those are all things that can decrease the risk of infection,” Ranney said. “So if there’s an activity that you absolutely have to do, or that’s really important to you, there are ways to minimize risk.”

There are a few types of activities the app does not cover, including airplane travel and schools, since Ranney said there is not enough data on transmission in those settings to accurately predict risk. 

The app is also geared towards assessing one-time activities, not daily routines or settings like work or school, though Ranney said she and Goldberg are hopeful future iterations of the program might allow the inclusion of school and work activities. They also hope to get the app up and running in other languages, like Spanish, to reach more members of the community.

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I really see it being helpful to pretty much everyone who’s trying to decide what types of activities they are able to do as we head into the fall and winter,” Ranney said of the app. “I think all of us are tired of being cooped up at home and trying to find safe ways to go about the normal activities of daily life, things like going to the grocery store or working out or seeing a couple of friends. So hopefully this will inform safer choices for all of us, while also allowing us to feel like there are some things that we can do safely outside of the four walls of our house.”

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The app’s availability comes just as Massachusetts and other New England states are seeing an a concerning uptick in COVID-19 cases headed into the flu and holiday season. 

“I’m hopeful that this will help us make smart decisions about things like Halloween or smart decisions about other activities as our case counts go up, and also, will remind us hopefully that some things that were safe when the case counts were very low may not be safe to do anymore,” Ranney said of the app. “For instance, getting together with two or three friends and having a drink — you may not want to have the drink. You may want to get together and sit there with masks on instead of taking the masks off and having a drink. So it may help us to change our behaviors and keep more of us safe as we do head into these fall months.”

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The increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, along with increasing numbers of hospitalizations, suggest that the states are going to see a “significant rise in cases” in the coming weeks, Ranney said.

Hospitalizations lag about two or three weeks behind new infections, she stressed, which means current case data indicates that there has been infection spread that will be showing up in emergency rooms and hospitalizations in the next couple weeks.

“I’m quite worried about what the next month is going to look like …  I think we are going to have to pull back a little bit,” Ranney said of reopening activities. “But hopefully knowing that most of the transmission of this virus right now is occurring in little social groups, hopefully little things like this app can help to decrease that by helping make safer decisions about how we get together with people who are not in our household.”

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View and use the app here: https://mycovidrisk.app/

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