UArizona Launches Texting System to Gather and Provide COVID-19 Information

AZCOVIDTXT will allow people to report the health and wellness condition in their household on a weekly basis by participating in brief surveys on their mobile phones.
April 20, 2020
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Kacey Ernst
Kacey Ernst
Nirav Merchant
Nirav Merchant
Tracy Crane
Tracy Crane

To address a critical lack of local data as COVID-19 continues to spread, a team of researchers from University of Arizona Health Sciences and the university's Data Science Institute is launching a two-way texting system to gather and provide valuable information to track COVID-19 in Arizona and identify areas where more resources may be needed. 

"With many people isolated or sheltering in place, Arizonans now have more limited access to timely care and everyday resources such as food and medicine, and they may be uncertain how their community is being impacted by the pandemic," said Dr. Michael D. Dake, senior vice president for UArizona Health Sciences. "This innovative texting system, which protects anonymity by de-identifying and aggregating information provided by users, builds upon multiple ongoing UArizona Health Sciences pandemic response efforts, including the creation and distribution of COVID-19 specimen collection kits around the state so more people can be tested for the virus."

AZCOVIDTXT will allow people to easily report the health and wellness condition in their household on a weekly basis through brief surveys via their mobile phones. This will allow users to connect with needed resources and provide vital information to a team of researchers led by Kacey Ernst, associate professor and infectious disease epidemiologist at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

To participate, Arizonans can simply text "JOIN" to 1-833-410-0546. Users also can sign up through the project website, azcovidtxt.org.

"The University of Arizona continues to innovate in helping Pima County and the state address the COVID-19 crisis," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation. "The AZCOVIDTXT tool goes beyond where people are sick to where people are suffering from the unavailability of food, access to medicines or medical treatment, and are dealing with other life challenges. By participating, we can together assist authorities in channeling support where it is most needed and truly understand the impacts of this crisis on our communities."

A promotional campaign is encouraging Arizonans to join the crowdsourcing project. Phase one targets Pima County and aims to enroll as many as 100,000 households. Phase two targets 500,000 households, and phase three takes the project statewide to enroll 1 million or more participants.

Government agency leaders on the state and local levels have expressed their support for the project, including Dr. Bob England, director of the Pima County Health Department, and Dr. Francisco Garcia, the department's chief medical officer and Pima County deputy administrator.

"This project is a great example of the kind of creative and strategic thinking that is necessary as we navigate this pandemic," England said. "The connection to direct data and communication this provides with our community is sure to prove incredibly valuable."

Ernst emphasized that the AZCOVIDTXT project allows participants to anonymously enroll and provide weekly information on the wellness of themselves and others in their households during the pandemic. It does not collect personally identifiable information and does not attempt to locate or track participants.

"In addition to health questions, users will be asked about access to food, medicine, sanitary and other essential supplies, and about stress and anxiety levels," she said. In response, messages may refer users to an area food bank, counseling or other services.

The information, gathered by ZIP code, will be protected through the REDCap surveys and clinical databases managed by the UArizona Center for Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics.

The project team also includes Nirav Merchant, director of the Data Science Institute, or Data7; Tracy Crane, assistant professor in the College of Nursing's Biobehavioral Health Sciences Division and co-director of the Behavioral Measurement and Interventions Shared Resource at the UArizona Cancer CenterSriram Iyengar, associate professor of internal medicine and director of clinical outcomes research analytics at the College of Medicine – Phoenix; and Dr. Tejal M. Parikh, associate professor of family and community medicine and assistant dean of the College of Medicine – Tucson. Parikh is coordinating medical students who want to participate in the project.

"This new data will give researchers a dynamic view, providing local and state authorities a more vivid picture of the pandemic and its impact," said Merchant, who, as well as being Data7 director, is UArizona co-principal investigator on the $115 million CyVerse cyber infrastructure federal grant and the UArizona BIO5 Institute cyber innovation director.

The AZCOVIDTXT project idea, Merchant said, originated in a late-March query from Iyengar on how UArizona colleagues could help provide localized data on COVID-19 in Arizona through self-reporting and real-time analysis. The project was launched with an initial $20,000 seed grant from the University of Arizona Office for Research, Innovation and Impact.

"Everything you're seeing right now, in terms of keeping track of how the disease is progressing, is at a very coarse grain," Merchant said. "It's county level at best. It's usually data summarized at the state level. And all of this is coming from hospitals or clinics at the end of the spectrum, after people are already gravely ill. They are not people telling you, 'Hey, I don't feel well,' or, 'I have a fever and something else.'"

"We don't really know the full scope of the outbreak, and this will allow a two-way exchange with the public," Ernst added. "This will allow us to see patterns as people report what they're experiencing. It will also help content experts craft messages and send them to key vulnerable populations. That includes messages about mental health and how to keep ourselves resilient in this time."

An AZCOVIDTXT community resource board on the website will be part of the integrated platform to allow other messaging tailored to different community segments. The platform, online or via text, also can help dispel myths and prevent scams, Crane said.

"A large number of COVID-related websites have emerged," she said. "It's important to have the University of Arizona provide reliable facts. In addition, cancer patients, geriatric populations, Native American communities and other groups all have varying needs. This allows an opportunity to reach a lot of people quickly and provide resources we know are evidence-based and truthful." 

A version of this story originally appeared on the University of Arizona Health Sciences website: https://opa.uahs.arizona.edu/newsroom/news/2020/uarizona-launches-two-way-texting-system-gather-and-provide-critical-covid-19.