- UnitedHealth and Microsoft have launched an app aimed at helping employers reopen their offices as most states have begun easing shelter-in-place restrictions against the advice of public health officials.
- The Microsoft-powered smartphone app, called ProtectWell, screens employees for COVID-19 and notifies their employers and coworkers in a push to provide peace of mind for employees returning to the workplace. Any workers found at-risk for the virus are directed to get a test, while the app notifies employers of the tests' results.
- UnitedHealth will control employees' medical data and manage opt-in and consent requirements for users, the healthcare behemoth said Friday. The app will not provide tracking or contact tracing information, as under occupational health and safety rules, workers' personal health information must be separate from personnel records. Though it runs the app, Microsoft will not have access to identifiable employee information.
Health-tech startups, providers, diagnostic firms and more are popping up to offer their services helping U.S. employers get back to work, though the availability of reliable COVID-19 tests has been a major barrier to widespread testing, including in the workplace.
The slew of employer health tracking apps is raising privacy concerns. Consumers are split on whether or not they'd use such apps, and become warier when the app is managed by a technology company like Google, Apple or Microsoft, according to Kaiser Family Foundation polling.
Microsoft and UnitedHealth's offering uses an artificial intelligence chatbot to ask users questions to screen for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. If it determines they're at risk, employers can direct their employees through a secure testing process that reports results directly back to employers.
The testing method will vary on an employer-by-employer basis, UnitedHealth spokesperson Eric Hausman told Healthcare Dive.
"For some employers, the app may enable an employee who needs a test to click a button and have a home test kit delivered to them; for others, an employee may be directed to call HR, or their supervisor, who will then direct them on where and how to obtain a test," Hausman said.
The system also includes guidelines and resources for workplace safety, including physical distancing and sanitation efforts, that employers can personalize for their workplace. UnitedHealth already uses the tool with its own frontline healthcare workers and is in the middle of rolling it out across the rest of its businesses, while Microsoft said it also planned to adopt the app for its more than 92,000 U.S.-based employees.
The two companies said the tool would be available to all U.S. employers for free.
An unprecedented amount of Americans have lost their jobs as vulnerable businesses cut hours or close altogether, pushing the U.S. unemployment rate close to 15%, a rate not reached since the Great Depression.
Only one state — North Dakota — had cleared White House guidelines for reopening as of Friday, according to CovidExitStrategy.org, a tracker maintained by public health and crisis experts. However, almost a third of the U.S. population is allowed to once again travel and move around the country as states begin to lift shelter-in-place restrictions, a move urged by President Donald Trump and decried by public health experts, some within the administration.
NIAID director Anthony Fauci testified to a Senate committee on Tuesday that lifting social distancing guidelines was "premature" and could worsen the state of the pandemic later in the fall, when it's likely to resurge.
Despite the uncertainty — including a lack of key facts about the virus, like if recovered individuals can get infected again —more than half of Americans are comfortable returning to work, according to consumer insights firm Piplsay.
Other employer-focused COVID-19 apps have focused on contact tracing, an important tool in public health's arsenal for mitigating disease spread.
Last month, workforce management company Kronos unveiled an automated reporting tool for COVID-19 contact tracing allowing employers to zero in on at-risk employees. Apple and Google are working on a Bluetooth-based contact tracing and exposure notification system that will work across both iOS and Android phones, which could go-live as early as mid-May.