If you have asthma, you probably know what the symptoms look like. Seasonal allergies? No problem. But in this new coronavirus pandemic era, most people are no longer certain how to assess their symptoms. With such high stakes during this public health crisis, people need guidance on which symptoms warrant action.
A sudden crush of concerned patients filling doctor's offices and emergency rooms could lead to mass shortages of resources like masks and gloves, not only affecting the care of those with COVID-19, the official name for the novel coronavirus, but potentially also hindering care for patients suffering a stroke or heart attack, among other emergencies.
Many Americans seem to be heeding guidance from local governments, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization to stay at home and self-monitor, but what are they supposed to do when a new symptom pops up? This may be particularly challenging since influenza, the common cold and COVID-19 can all present similar symptoms of coughing, sneezing, fatigue, body aches and fever.
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Matters are even worse for certain vulnerable populations who are at higher risk for severe complications with COVID-19 and have an urgent need to know when they should no longer stay home, when to call a doctor, and when to go to the emergency room.
"Doctors know that crowded waiting rooms could make the problem worse because people sick with COVID-19 could infect others, speeding the overall rate of infection," David Wright, MD, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told ABC News.
Recognizing this dilemma, Wright and his colleagues created a free online tool, working with health care software company Vital, called the Coronavirus Checker (C19check.com) to help people evaluate their risk of COVID-19 before heading to a hospital. The physicians wanted to help prevent a surge on the health care system.
It's not Wright's first rodeo. In 2009, he and his colleagues quickly rebooted a previously designed tool to be best prepared for a surge on the health care systems during the H1N1 pandemic.
"Now," he says, "we've updated that algorithm again for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidelines and were able to put all the technical expertise and resources of Vital to work quickly to make an easy to use tool. It'll be continuously updated as we learn more."
Wright and his team of doctors say the Coronavirus Checker allows people who are worried they might have COVID-19 to check if they are at low, medium or high risk for severe coronavirus illness severity based on their symptoms and pre-existing conditions.
The online tool is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, requiring a few simple clicks to get an answer. The user enters their age, symptoms, previous conditions and zip code.
Based on their responses "a person is directed to guidance based on CDC guidelines and is placed into one of three categories: high risk (needs immediate medical attention), intermediate-risk (can contact their doctor for guidance about how to best manage their illness), or low risk (can most likely administer self-care or recover at home). In any case, the person is never dissuaded from seeking professional medical advice or contacting their healthcare provider for more guidance," Alexander P. Isakov, MD, MPH, executive director of Emory University Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, said.
It is unclear if any regulatory vetting process is required for these types of online tools. ABC News reached out to the CDC to see if it requires approval for such tools, but did not immediately hear back.
The doctors hope the end result is that people can effectively self-triage at home, avoiding unnecessary potential exposure or overwhelming the health care system. The website cautions that it is "meant for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical attention. There is no way a website can actually know if you have a viral condition."
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"We'd all like to have a doctor available to us at all times, but that's an impractical solution in the best times, and unfeasible in a pandemic," Isakov said. "This is an educational tool that will help people self-navigate the huge amount of information available, to make it easy to understand and ultimately to streamline care. It is not a diagnostic tool; it is for educational purposes and not a replacement for a healthcare provider evaluation."
As a final note, Dr. Wright says, "This product was built as a public service. It is free. It is available on any computer or smartphone, and can be used by medical professionals or laypeople. It collects no personal information. It makes the company no money. Users can opt to share a zip code to contribute to research tracking the geographic spread and eventual recovery from the pandemic."
As always, ABC News encourage readers to consult their physicians.
Angela N. Baldwin, M.D., M.P.H., is a pathology resident at Montefiore Health System in the Bronx and Delaram J. Taghipour, MD, MPH, MBA is a Preventive Medicine Resident at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, both are contributors to the ABC News Medical Unit.