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COVID-19 tracking app launches in MN

With the help of users, "SafeDistance" aims to track the spread of COVID-19 at the neighborhood level.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — There's a new COVID-19 tracking app for Minnesotans that breaks it down into neighborhoods. "SafeDistance" uses public data but it will also rely heavily on users to add to the platform. 

HealthPartners Institute, researchers at the University of Minnesota and Modern Logic have teamed up for this nonprofit project. 

They hope that through the app, users can learn more about the health of their neighborhood and help them avoid potential COVID-19 hotspots. 

"As a user, it gives you a good sense of what your individual risk is based on your symptoms as well as based on your neighborhood," said Dr. Bjorn Westgard, an emergency physician at Regions Hospital and population health researcher with HealthPartners Institute. 

Users do not log in to SafeDistance. There's a short health survey and then users can see a map of their neighborhood, as well as other neighborhoods. 

"We're very concerned about privacy so we anonymize all the data and it goes anonymously to your neighborhood level. So by reporting your symptoms, you just make our model better," said Brian Krohn with Modern Logic. 

According to Krohn, data will not be used for-profit and users will not be asked for identifiable information. The app crowdsources data into census block groups that usually contain about 1,500 people. 

Typically, tracking systems are done by county and only include confirmed cases. With a lack of testing, SafeDistance wanted to include potential and confirmed cases to give users a better idea of how the virus is spreading. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
SafeDistance shows hot spots and gives users tips on how to stay safe.

Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, has some concerns. 

"A lot of our cases are in the elderly and so it's unlikely that an app would be a tool that they would be able to use to really describe their status or where they're at," Ehresmann said. 

She also wondered if the app has the ability to identify when someone is no longer infectious. 

Dr. Westgard said right now the public data shows any case that's been reported—both active and resolved. But users have the ability to update their status, including if their symptoms have gone away. 

"What I'm most concerned about is giving people the wrong sense of either fear or security about COVID. We know it's circulating in the state and we want people to follow our community mitigation guidance, our shelter in place, good hand washing, social distance. All of those things, app or no app," Ehresmann said. 

Dr. Westgard said they've reached out to MDH and hope to work with them. 

"We've been trying to make sure that this is aligned with what the CDC's put out, what MDH has put out, but I think people are interested in what sort of the spatial distribution of this is... where it's spreading to, where the hot spots are," Dr. Westgard said. 

SafeDistance shows hot spots and gives users tips on how to stay safe. In order to get tracking to the neighborhood level, they'll need many users to contribute to the app. 

"We'll be rolling this out in the next week or so... as you're moving around, you'll actually see if you're going into a higher risk area or you're coming from a higher risk area," Krohn said.

While the app launched Wednesday in Minnesota, it's expected to expand across the country. 

It's currently available for iPhones and soon will be available for Android. The best way to use it right now is by visiting safedistance.org

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.