County News

Counties turn to apps, alert systems in pandemic

Orange County, N.Y. Health Commissioner Irina Gelman and County Executive Steve Neuhaus view data from the health department's mobile app that provides county residents with information related to COVID-19. Photo courtesty of Orange County

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When combating the impacts of a global pandemic in the 21st century, counties are turning to innovative tech to provide accurate information to county residents.

“With the ability to use apps — the sky’s the limit,” according to Rich Collins, director of Emergency Services for Sarasota County, Fla.

Officials in Sarasota County launched a notification system and are using mobile applications to efficiently spread information during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The notification system, Alert Sarasota County, was launched in partnership with four cities and is a product of Everbridge, a telephone notification service that has a contract with the state of Florida. Emergency Management Chief Ed McCrane said this is an additional benefit for the county because the state is funding the system.

Residents can visit and enroll to receive phone calls, text messages or emails.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, McCrane said the county uses the system to send out daily flash reports which includes information on the number of COVID-19 cases, location of positive cases, graphs tracking the trend of the virus’s spread and other data.

“We find the more information you can provide especially to your response partners, the better situational awareness everybody has,” McCrane said.

The county is using additional features of the system for in-house notifications to staff, according to McCrane. When the emergency operations center is activated, employees will receive a notification about their role and need to report.

“We’re using it mostly internally and we can use it to reach out to the community with community-wide messaging if something were to occur or we need to get information out,” he said.

After reviewing procedures following Hurricane Irma in 2017, Collins said the county reviewed ways to move information more efficiently and obtain an accurate operating picture during crisis situations.

The county built these applications utilizing Smartsheet (which is similar to Microsoft Excel) and AppSheet, a no-code development platform, to quickly spread information. The county contracted with both companies to use the platforms and internal teams have created the databases.

“The great thing about it is it’s being done by the people who are in the role, so we can meet with public works and talk about what their issues are and develop what we’re collecting based on what they feel is most important,” Collins said.

Through the coronavirus pandemic, the county is using these applications to track resource hospitals, numbers of COVID-19 patients, the percentage of beds available in the ICU and how many rooms are in isolation. The databases also track how the shutdown is affecting the ability to feed vulnerable populations and how many people in different ZIP codes have applied for unemployment.

“We’re tracking what our costs are, all of our resource requests, everything is being done on the fly in these types of Smartsheets,” Collins said. “I feel like on any given moment I can look and see what’s going on and get a good picture of how our communities are doing.”

The databases are cloud-based with backups if there is a loss of power or internet, Collins said.

“I think that use of that technology provides information at your fingertips for anybody and with the more information we put out, the less questions we get back because everybody is on the same page,” McCrane said.

In Orange County, N.Y. the health department recently introduced a free mobile app that provides information related to COVID-19.

Orange County Health Commissioner Irina Gelman created the app and said the county had been working on establishing a mobile application prior to the pandemic.

“The notion was to have one app that would be the real time navigation tool and really a one-stop shop for all resources from the county,” Gelman said., which customizes apps for state and local governments, created the app for the county. County residents are able to download it from Google Play and the Apple store.

Users can find up-to-date information, mapping and other resources in the app. The county can send notifications through a push notification component, bringing crucial information to the screens of county residents.

“Technology can really be that conduit and help facilitate a lot of the education, outreach, informational component and it really unveils itself to that immediate notification anytime we need to reach out to the public at large,” Gelman said.

The app also provides information from other departments within the county such as the Office for the Aging or daily addresses from the county executive’s office.

Gelman added that the county is looking at other possibilities to enhance the app such as adding a telehealth platform.

“The great feature of this particular app is that it’s quite versatile and we can easily adapt it to our needs,” Gelman said. “Hopefully once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, we can always adapt it for broader applications throughout the county.”

Other counties have implemented similar mobile applications including Los Angeles County’s “Stop Price Gouging” app; Burlington County, N.J.’s free COVID-19 and Social Services Resources app and Sonoma County, Calif.’s  COVID-19 Check app, where county employees complete a 30-second daily screening for COVID-19-related symptoms.

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