University of Wisconsin faculty and students created a free app to provide updates and important information regarding COVID-19 to Wisconsin residents. 

The Center for Health Enhancement System Studies pioneered the creation of this inclusive multi-tool app.

The app relays information regarding the virus and offers tips on prevention and protection. The app also includes an online intervention feature that suggests ways to tackle mental health issues that are a result of COVID-19, according to the app’s webpage.

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According to Co-Investigator Professor Marie-Louise Mares, there are various core components of the app such as discussion groups and fact checking elements. The first component, Louise-Mares said, was to constantly update the website with trustworthy and specific information.

Initially, Mares said the first obstacle was making the information as accessible as possible. This meant creating both an app and a website for different platforms on both android and apple products. 

“We also wanted to be very nimble and respond in a timely manner so that people who were blindsided by how quickly things were spreading would have a place to go to find that support,” Mares said. 

With news on COVID-19 being a constant flood, Mares said focusing on and narrowing the information for students and the public was paramount to CHESS.

Louise-Mares said CHESS’s discussion rooms featured on the COVID-19 app incorporate an interactive element which focuses on healing physically and coping mentally with the virus.

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“I think the discussion groups are a core component where people going through the same thing can come on and express anxiety or confusion or just ask questions so we can reach out to DHS and get answers or to just provide comfort and reassurance,” Mares said.

As incoming freshmen are due to arrive on campus in the fall, CHESS considered the confusion the new students may face. Tackling a new environment coupled with the uncertainty of a pandemic is not an easy task. Marketing efforts to get the app recognized will help freshmen and others in Wisconsin find support and resources, Mares said.

According to Mares, the app also features a fact-checking component created in collaboration with UW’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

“In order to prevent the spread of misinformation, the team sees what misinformation is trending, clarifies it and provides links to the correct resource,” Mares said.

Additionally, Mares said they try to thoroughly think through the implications and context of the pandemic with all who are affected. 

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Mares said the app provides a wealth of resources to those who have contracted COVID-19 while also providing resources to those who have lost jobs or are experiencing financial hardship.

“There are a lot of links and resources to helpful information about where to go for food banks, where to go for testing, unemployment navigation, advice and resources for people struggling with partner violence, substance abuse issues, etc.,” Mares said. 

In order to relay information the app and website have to offer, Mares said a team affiliated with UW’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication led extensive marketing efforts.

“Their job was to reach out across the state, not just here in Madison, and to different ethnic and racial groups to make sure that this wasn’t narrowly pitched and we would be able to meet the needs of groups that we know are more vulnerable,” Mares said. 

In addition to targeted marketing efforts, one discussion group topics is called “stigma and discrimination,” which offers specific mental health resources for Black communities. 

According to an article by Wisconsin Public Radio, the virus is disproportionately affecting communities of color in Milwaukee. While Milwaukee’s Black population represents a quarter of the total population, they account for almost half of all deaths in the area. 

Faculty Associate Debra Pierce said the communication team’s marketing efforts focused on connections with local newspapers and media outlets in order to spread awareness.

“At the launch, we placed ads in African American and Latino local community newspapers,” Pierce said. “We also reached out to more than 70 groups and individuals with strong influence and trust amongst communities of color via email and social media.”

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With the help of specialists and educators in all facets of research, Louise-Mares said CHESS’s creation of the new COVID-19 Wisconsin app offers both support and resources with an emphasis on balancing  accuracy and fact checking with efficient and prompt updating.

The team worked extensively on marketing and exposure in order to inform students and residents of the resources the app offers, Pierce said.

“We recognized and saw the disparities that Black and other communities of color were facing … so our efforts focused on generating awareness and usage of the app amongst these important Wisconsin communities,” Pierce said.