HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- Researchers with the University of South Florida's College of Public Health rolled out a project this week that aims to pinpoint COVID-19 hot spots in Tampa Bay and use that data to figure out how the virus will progress in coming days and weeks.

The goal is for hospitals and health departments to use that information to better fight back and be prepared for any surge in patients.

  • USF rolled out COVID-19 Symptom Surveillance System this week
  • Data can be used to pinpoint coronavirus hot spots and predict patient surges
  • Public asked to take survey to help in data collection

"We're hoping with this syndromic surveillance system to really be able to identify hot spots in the Tampa Bay area, where people are experiencing symptoms but they're not really qualifying for testing," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, co-director of the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research at USF's College of Public Health and a distinguished professor with the university.

Unnasch said the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 likely represents a small percentage of the total number of people who have been infected.

USF's COVID-19 Associated Symptom Surveillance System -- a collaboration with the Public Health Program of Ponce Health Sciences University, the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust, and the Hillsborough and Pinellas County Departments of Health -- is meant to fill in the gaps.

People who live in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties can take a survey and answer questions about where they live and what, if any, symptoms they're experiencing. Data from the survey will be fed into models specifically developed for the area to predict the progress of the virus in terms of asymptomatic infections, symptomatic infections, and possible surges of patients headed to local hospitals. Unnasch compared it to a weather forecast.

"This model is going to do basically the same thing except for the COVID-19 epidemic. So, the more data that we have that we can actually feed in regarding what's happening now and what's happened in the last few days, the more accurate our predictions are going to be moving forward about what's likely to happen over the next several days or few weeks," said Unnasch.

Researchers are putting out the call for the public to help make the project a success by taking the survey -- even if they're feeling well. Unnasch said it has been encouraging to see data suggest that social distancing seems to be making a difference in "flattening the curve."

"If we can extend that cooperation here to this model that we've developed, as well, and to the syndromic surveillance, it's going to really help our public health people moving forward and the hospitals moving forward, knowing where the problems are in the community and also being able to predict what's going to be coming down the line three days, five days, a week or two weeks in the future," Unnasch said.

Hillsborough and Pinellas County residents can take the survey here.