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Contact tracing-app shows you how close COVID-19 cases are to you

Posted at 10:35 AM, Aug 07, 2020

The spread of COVID-19 is tough to trace and even tougher to predict, but researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University created an early warning system to help protect you from the virus

Mathematics professor Po-Shen Loh developed an app called NOVID, a contact-tracing app, to help communities see the virus coming before they get infected.

On top of creating a brand new app, Loh teaches math to middle-school students online from his own office-turned-broadcast studio. He’s also the national coach for the United States Math Olympiad team that competes around the world.

But when the pandemic hit, Loh wanted to take on one more project.

“I like things that are supposed to be impossible, that can’t be done,” said Loh.

Stopping the spread of the coronavirus seemed to fit the bill.

“The problem with COVID is it spreads before you know you have it, that’s what makes COVID different," Loh said. "The only way you can control this disease is in helping people to know whether or not COVID is coming close to them in advance."

That’s where the NOVID app can help, said Loh.

“Shows the virus coming towards you based on your relationship network, so that you can protect yourselves from others before you actually get infected," Loh explained of the app. "This is in contrast to most other contact tracing apps that are designed to protect others from you."

The app shows you positive cases in degrees of separation. A positive case in the first degree would be someone you live with. The second degree could be your coworker or a friend. The third degree would be that person’s spouse or child. Each degree of separation is a possible pathway for you to come in contact with COVID-19.

“This thing shows you the virus coming towards you, kind of like a hurricane satellite shows you a hurricane coming towards you,” said Loh.

In addition to showing you cases as they pop up around you, the app can track the distance between phones down to the inch.

It uses both Bluetooth and ultrasound waves to give you that measurement to make sure you’re safely social distancing.

“We don’t know of any other contact-tracing app in the entire world which will tell you, ‘here’s how far away we think the device was,’” said Loh.

The safety of your personal information is one of the most important features of this app. It collects data, while you stay completely anonymous.

“Many people are distrustful of an app that does contact tracing,” said Loh. “We never ask for your phone number or email."

Those who are positive can self-report their case in the app. Loh is also working with cities and counties to integrate NOVID into health departments across the country. He said the health departments would issue a ticket with a number to each person who tests positive for the virus.

That person would enter the number into their NOVID app, anonymously reporting the positive case in the community.

“If this thing actually caught on, you’d see in all the cities and towns, whether it’s rural or urban, whenever COVID starts to rise up, you’d start to see everyone take caution. Not because anyone forced them to, but because they saw this is what would be useful,” said Loh.

To create the powerful community resource Loh is hoping for, he said more people need to know about the app.

“Right now, we only respond when the intensive care units are full, and then it’s too late, and people die on the sidewalk. But, what we wish would happen, is that people could see it coming, and then, everyone starts to be careful at the right time. With more traction, we can save more lives,” he said.

Loh is hoping he can not only help save lives but help bring back life as we knew it.

“The goal of what we’re trying to do is to give people headlights to drive in the dark. Our app is not designed to let other people control you; our app is designed to help you control your life,” said Loh.

For more information on NOVID or to download it, click HERE.