UArizona Launches Two-Way Texting System to Gather and Provide Critical COVID-19 Health Data

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A research team at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and Data Science Institute has launched a crowd-source texting system to gather vital public health data to help fight COVID-19 in Arizona.

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

A flyer developed to promote the AZCOVIDTXT Project for bidirectional texts between the public and research team to help track the novel coronavirus and alert public health officials to where resources are needed. Click to view.“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 Michael D. Dake, MD, 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 enable people to easily report the health and wellness condition in their household on a weekly basis by participating in brief surveys via their mobile phones. This will enable users to connect with needed resources and provide vital pandemic information to a team of researchers led by Kacey Ernst, PhD, associate professor and infectious disease epidemiologist at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

To participate, Arizonans simply text “JOIN” to 1-833-410-0546. For the Spanish-speaking community, para quienes deseen participar, texto con UNIRSE al 1-833-410-0546. Users also can sign up through the project website:

A postcard underscoring that input is being sought in both English and Spanish regarding COVID-19 and any assistance needed by those sheltering in place. Click to view.

“The University of Arizona continues to innovate in helping Pima County and the State address the COVID-19 Crisis,” said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, PhD, UArizona’s 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 crowd sourcing 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 Bob England, MD, MPH, director of the Pima County Health Department, and Francisco Garcia, MD, MPH, the department’s chief medical officer and Pima County deputy administrator.

Dr. Kacey Ernst, an associate professor with the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

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

Dr. Ernst underscored 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.

With the surveys, she added, “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.” In response, follow-up 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.

Nirav Merchant, director of the UArizona Data Science Institute and BIO5 Institute cyber innovation

The project team also includes: Data Science Institute (Data7) Director Nirav MerchantTracy Crane, PhD, RDN, assistant professor, Biobehavioral Health Sciences DivisionUArizona College of Nursing, and co-director of the Behavioral Measurement and Interventions Shared Resource at the UArizona Cancer CenterSriram Iyengar, PhD, associate professor of internal medicine and director of clinical outcomes research analytics, UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix; and Tejal M. Parikh, MD, associate professor, Family and Community Medicine, and assistant dean, UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson. Dr. Parikh is coordinating medical students who wanted 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, also 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 Dr. Iyengar on how UArizona colleagues could help provide localized data on COVID-19 in Arizona through self-reporting and real-time analysis. “Everything you're seeing right now, in terms of keeping track of how the disease is progressing, is at a very coarse grain. 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.’”

Dr. Tracy Crane, an assistant professor with the UArizona College of Nursing and Arizona Cancer Center“We don't really know the full scope of the outbreak, and this will allow a two-way exchange with the public,” Dr. 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, Dr. Crane said.

“A large number of COVID-related websites have emerged. 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,” she said.

The AZCOVIDTXT Project was launched with an initial $20,000 seed grant from the University of Arizona Office for Research, Innovation and Impact

The UArizona Health Sciences COVID-19 Resources webpage can be found here.

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.