Your Smartphone Can Help Fight COVID. Here’s How.

February 02, 2021 5:00 AM

Get alerts about possible exposures, sign up for vaccination, report your vaccine reaction, help researchers with their projects and more.

Blue animated guy on cellphone with shield protecting oneself.
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Smartphones have helped many people get through the pandemic. They’ve given us a way to connect with friends and family, manage work or school assignments, pass the time with games and social media, order food, track exercise and keep up on the news.

But did you know your smartphone can help fight COVID-19?

It’s true – and it’s easy.

“You’ve got a powerful tool right in your hands, and you can play a role in taming this pandemic and helping get to widespread vaccination so we can get back to normal,” says Preeti Malani, M.D., chief health officer for the University of Michigan and an infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine. “Of course, not everyone has a smartphone, including about one-third of people over 65, but the rest of us can use our phones to help those who don’t – or point them to other ways of helping with these goals.”

Here are six ways to use your device to help yourself and others:

Get alerted about COVID-19 exposures | Make a vaccination appointment | Track vaccine reactions Spread the word about COVID-19 vaccination | Help researchers understand COVID-19 | and Speed up your daily activities.

1. Get alerted if you’ve been near a contagious person.

Your phone can tell you if you’ve been exposed to someone who has the virus, so you can go into quarantine, get tested, monitor and treat your symptoms, and avoid spreading the virus to others.

After all, half of all COVID-19 cases come from “silent spreaders” – infected people who didn’t have symptoms when they were around other people, but later got sick or tested positive.

How can you know if you’ve been exposed? There’s an app for that, at least in many states. These “contact tracing” apps use your smartphone’s Bluetooth function to anonymously detect if you recently came near someone else who uses the app and has now tested positive for COVID-19.

If you were near such a person during the days when it turns out they were most contagious, you’ll get an alert after they test positive, and instructions on what to do next. It works even if it was someone you’ve never met before and will never see again, like the person you stood behind in the line at the grocery store, or someone at the next table at a restaurant you went to.

If you get exposed, the apps also make it easy for you to track your symptoms if you develop them, and to alert others who have been near you if you test positive.

And it’s secure – your privacy is protected at all times. You won’t know exactly who you might have exposed you, and if you get sick the people who came close to you and have the app won’t know who exposed them. Your location information won’t be saved or accessible to anyone, and the Bluetooth signals don’t put too much drain on your battery.

SEE ALSO: Seeking Medical Care During COVID-19

The more people that use these apps, the better they work. In some countries, millions of people have them running in the background on their phones all the time, and it has helped health officials notify the people who need to get tested and stay home in quarantine or isolation.

The state of Michigan’s app is called MI COVID Alert, and it’s in use on about 1 in 10 Michiganders’ phones. If you’re a parent, make sure your teens and tweens put the app on their phones too. As they go back to school in person, the app could help them get notified if a friend, staff member, classmate or teammate has tested positive.

2. Find out when you’re eligible for vaccination, and schedule your appointment.

If your doctor or other health care provider is affiliated with a health system or hospital in your area, chances are that you can download an app that will let you log in to your patient account. Just check the hospital’s website or ask your doctor’s office staff about their “patient portal” app.

Since many COVID-19 vaccinations are being given at centralized clinics for all the patients in the hospital’s system, this app may be your fastest way to be alerted when it’s your turn to sign up for an appointment. And you may be able to pick an appointment time and location within the app (don’t forget to put the date of your first and second shots in your smartphone’s calendar, too.)

These apps can also help you have a video-based appointment with your provider, send them messages and request appointments or prescription renewals. And of course, you can probably pay your medical bills too – though the COVID-19 vaccine and most COVID-related care shouldn’t cost you anything.

If you have an older relative or friend, help them download, install and log in to the app for their doctor’s hospital. They can even grant you “proxy” access so that you can use your phone to see their notifications and help them make appointments. A recent U-M poll showed that nearly half of adults over 65 don’t have a patient portal account, which could mean they won’t get vaccine-related alerts in a timely way.

Even if you or they don’t want to use a patient portal app on a smartphone, or don’t have a smartphone, patient portals can also be accessed through a web browser on a computer or tablet.

3. Track your reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine (even if you didn’t have a reaction.)

As vaccination rolls out, it’s important for as many people as possible to report their reaction after they get their first and second doses – even if they didn’t have much of a reaction at all.

Thankfully, there’s an easy smartphone-based way to do it.

By reporting to the nation’s central tracking system at the Centers for Disease Control or Prevention, or CDC, you can help others know what to expect. And if enough people report, experts can spot any signs of rare and serious trouble, or groups that need extra monitoring.

So far, in half to three quarters of people who received them, the COVID-19 vaccines caused reactions like arm pain, headaches, fatigue, fever and/or chills. Most were mild and short-lived, and no worse than the reactions for other vaccines.

But you might have also heard about people passing out from an anaphylactic allergic reaction, which has happened a few dozen times in millions of COVID vaccinations across the U.S., all quickly treated. Or maybe you’ve heard rumors about worse problems, though it’s important to check out claims because there’s so much misinformation spreading.

SEE ALSO: Keeping Our Patients Safe During COVID-19

The smartphone-based reporting tool isn’t an app that you have to download. Instead, it uses your smartphone’s web browser and text messages to your phone number. It’s called the V-Safe After Vaccination Health Tracker.

It doesn’t take long to register – in fact, you can do it while you sit in the waiting area before or after you get your vaccination. Just go to vsafe.cdc.gov from your phone’s web browser and click Get Started (you may even be able to scan a QR code with your phone’s camera at the vaccination clinic location that will take you directly to the site.)

You should do this as soon as possible, but no later than 42 days, after your first vaccine dose.

Signing up is as simple as entering your smartphone number and a few pieces of information about yourself, and agreeing to receive texts from the system. Then, you’ll receive a six-digit code via text message, which you enter into the website along with information about which dose of which vaccine you received and when.

"You’ve got a powerful tool right in your hands, and you can play a role in taming this pandemic and helping get to widespread vaccination so we can get back to normal."
Preeti Malani, M.D.

All of this information will be kept secure.

Then, you’ll get a daily text message in the first week, with a link that will open in your phone’s browser and enable you to answer a few quick questions about any reactions you had. Even if you didn’t have a reaction that day, you should answer the questions that day. Then it will text you to report again around the time you should be getting your second dose.

If you report at any time that you had a serious reaction, or if you disclose to V-Safe that you are pregnant, you may get contacted by CDC to get more information or enroll you in a follow-up registry. If you get contacted, you can help officials gain very important understandings about the vaccine.

In the first month of vaccination in the U.S., about 2 million people entered at least one V-safe report. The reactions they reported were very similar to what was seen in the clinical trials – pain at the injection site, and a higher chance of other mild side effects after the second dose . But the system got reports from less than 10% of everyone who got vaccinated at least once in that month. The more people who report, the better CDC can track vaccine reactions of all kinds, and share that information.

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If you don’t have a smartphone, or you know someone who has gotten vaccinated but doesn’t have a smartphone, you or they can also report any reactions through the web.

“This new CDC safety measure operates in conjunction with several other existing vaccine safety monitoring systems that may detect early warning signs of adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccination,” says Pamela Rockwell, D.O., the American Academy of Family Physicians liaison to CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and a family physician at Michigan Medicine. “I encourage all to participate in V-Safe to help scientists evaluate COVID-19 vaccine safety and collect data on normal side effects – not only is V-Safe easy to use, but it also gives me a sense of comfort, knowing [the] CDC is monitoring my symptoms with follow-up plans in case I experience adverse reactions outside of the typical mild symptoms reported to date.”

4. Spread the word after you get vaccinated.

Even if you’ve made the decision to get vaccinated as soon as you’re eligible, many people in your social media contacts list may have not. A “vaccine selfie” (with your mask on at the vaccination clinic, or holding up your vaccine registry card with your finger over your birth date) is a great way to show that you’ve considered the facts and made the choice to get protected.

With a simple smartphone photo, you can lead the way for friends and family – especially if you’re in one of the early groups for vaccination.

Some of the people you know may be secretly on the fence, or even openly question your decision to get the shot. Your photo could open the door for them to contact you privately – or criticize you publicly. Either way, that’s your chance to share trustworthy information such as this article about what happens after you get the COVID-19 vaccine, or this one that addresses common COVID-19 worries and myths.

5. Help researchers track COVID-19 activity in your area.

Ever since the pandemic began, researchers have used smartphone apps or text message systems to collect information about symptoms, exposures and more from people who agree to take part in their studies. This can help improve understanding of how the disease is spreading even among people who haven’t gotten tested, and other aspects of the pandemic.

Interesting in signing up? Visit the Outbreaks Near Me study site, or the COVID-19 Symptom Study site and learn more. You can also see some of the data they’ve collected.

6. Speed up your access at work or school.

If your employer, school district, college or university is large enough, it might use app- or mobile-based technology to screen people for COVID symptoms, provide information about testing and vaccination, and more.

Ask around if you haven’t heard about any tools like this. For instance, University of Michigan students who are on or near campus this semester must report symptoms before entering any building, and get tested regularly, using information on the Responsiblue app. They can also get their test results in the app.

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