The National Department of Health on Friday launched ‘COVIDConnect’, government’s official COVID-19 support service.

Recently, South Africans would have received SMSs from the Department of Health giving them vital information, including their COVID-19 test results. They may also have received an alert that they have been identified as a contact of a COVID-19 positive patient.

This is part of the COVIDConnect system.

In a press briefing on Friday evening, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize said one of the critical aspects of combatting COVID-19 is the ability to detect positive cases early, track and trace their contacts, and refer them for appropriate management –  whether it is immediate testing, isolation or quarantine.

“The digital system that the Department of Health is currently using, called COVIDConnect, brings an easy-to-use self-service portal to your cellular phone. It is freely accessible through WhatsApp and SMS. What also makes it more accessible is that it does not require for a user to have a smart phone but it works on any mobile phone,” Mkhize said.

“This system enhances the physical effort of contact tracking and tracing which is done by our community health workers and volunteers. It automates this traditional process and continuously engages with the affected user.”

When a patient conducts a test for Coronavirus, their information is picked up from the lab form and they will be informed of their test result, whether positive or negative, by SMS. If the result is positive, the system prompts the patient for further information in order to identify their contacts. The system then immediately dispatches alerts via SMS to those contacts without disclosing the index patient’s details.

The nondisclosure of the patient’s name is to ensure that their privacy is protected.

In addition, the system can geo-locate the nearest quarantine and isolation facility for the user and the nearest health care facility for patients or their contacts who are experiencing symptoms requiring medical attention.

Users can also get the latest COVID-19 news and information, prevention tips and wellness advice at the touch of a button. There is also a simple risk-assessment tool which will screen users for COVID-19 symptoms and give them advice on whether they should self-isolate or seek professional clinical assistance.

“We are pleased to announce that since the system went live in June, it has yielded some positive results. Between June 28 and July 15, it has dispatched 674 380 SMSs to users nationwide and relayed 326 522 test results. 39,463 users have engaged with the service –  but this is not enough,” Mkhize said.

“The surge of this pandemic requires all citizens to participate in such innovations. As an individual, at home or at work, once you receive this SMS, we urge that you take it upon yourself to appropriately respond as prompted. We believe that this method will significantly enhance contact tracing and allow for us to quickly identify cases that we would not easily trace.

We also want to inform the public that this track and trace service will not infringe people’s privacy or data. In fact, one of the reasons we delayed to implement the system was to ensure that that it passes the legal muster and adheres to legal prescripts relating to personal information, confidentiality and individual and data privacy.”

Mkhize said the Department held a consultation with Madame Justice Kate O’Reagan, who is the COVID-19 designate judge. Her guidance assisted government to establish regulations on how to implement the track and trace system.

“We take this opportunity to acknowledge the entities that the Department of Health has partnered with, namely Telkom/ BCX, GovChat, Praekilt and BlueBird,” Mkhize said.

To access COVIDConnect, just add ‘0600123456’ to your phonebook and say ‘hello’ on WhatsApp. If you do not have a smartphone, just dial *134*832# and follow the prompts.

When you test for COVID-19, supply your healthcare worker with your correct date of birth, physical address and cellphone number. You can then use COVIDConnect to retrieve your test results via your cellphone or you will receive an SMS once your test results are ready.

To receive your results on WhatsApp, just add ‘LetsTalk’ to your phonebook on ‘0820468553’. Type in ‘Results’ on WhatsApp and follow the prompts.