As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and the United States works to ramp up testing and mitigation capabilities, a public health electronic surveillance tool developed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel, is helping to fill gaps by tracking the virus’ spread symptomatically.

Twenty-one local and state public health departments, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Defense, are currently employing the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE) to monitor trends, look for flashpoints and spot possible COVID-19 cases for intervention.

Local governments are able to use this data to help advise them in taking measures to increase social distancing and arrest the spread of the virus, such as the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders currently enacted in multiple states nationwide, the closings of schools and nonessential businesses, and strict limits on gatherings of any kind.

Currently, the CDC is tracking 70 percent or more of all hospital visits in the country, with more than 4.25 billion records received and processed by the ESSENCE system and algorithms. The CDC version alone encompasses more than 2,000 users throughout the country, but many state and local jurisdictions also have their own installations of the application and are heavily using the system to track the virus’ spread.

“Especially in light of the fact that laboratory testing is behind, our system is being used to augment those tests,” explained Wayne Loschen, a software engineer in APL’s Research and Exploratory Development Department and the technical lead on ESSENCE. “We are able to then load in the test results and overlay that data as well.”