roadside sign  reading  "use  social distancing"

A unique strength of the web over all other communications channels is its ability to efficiently collect, analyze, organize and publish user-generated content. The combination of digital technology and the wisdom of the crowds is a powerful, revolutionary force.

A perfect example of this is a symptom-tracking app launched by researchers at King’s College London in March 2020. Within weeks it had millions of people entering in symptoms. This scale of insight, collected almost in real time, could never have been possible without the internet.

Once COVID-19 emerged, information on it was obviously extremely scarce. It seems that in building the initial symptoms list organizations looked at SARS, a similar type of virus. The main SARS symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. The initial COVID-19 symptoms published by the US CDC, for example, were the same.

There has never been a greater need for evidence-based decision making. But what is even more important is the ability to gather and quickly analyze the tremendous quantities of new information that are being created. In the last two years, we have created more data than in all of previous history. Are our organizations fit for purpose in this new world of constant data tsunamis?

The symptom tracker launched by King’s College quickly identified a news set of symptoms for COVID-19. “Loss of taste and smell were particularly striking,” an analysis of the data showed. Evidence began to be published by multiple other research sources indicating that indeed loss of taste and smell were crucial COVID-19 symptoms.

One of the most troubling aspects of COVID-19 is that a significant percentage of people who have it have no symptoms, don’t show symptoms in the early, most-infectious days, or else only have mild symptoms. Perhaps a reason people were seen to have no symptoms was because they were not being diagnosed properly. “In some people, anosmia [loss of smell] is the first or an early symptom, and for some the only symptom, of COVID-19,” Leslie Kay wrote for Scientific American on June 13. This is critical information. This being true, it would be absolutely essential to get loss of smell and taste added to the key symptoms list as quickly as possible.

However, in many situations that is not what happened. I tracked the introduction of smell and taste symptoms in a number of health websites. The earliest I saw mention of them was April 2. Typically, they were not added until mid or late May and on some websites it was mid-June.

“Tens of thousands of cases of Covid-19 may have been missed because of delays in warning the public that loss of taste and smell is a key symptom that should lead to self-isolation or testing, experts say,” Sarah Boseley reported for The Guardian on May 18.

Many health organizations were too slow to update their symptoms and other critical information. They left old symptoms lists up on their websites even after updating some of their content. Organizations are extremely poor at managing content they have already published. COVID-19 has shown how little information technology, digital and the web have actually contributed to quality, accurate, up-to-date information.