VANCOUVER -- UBC researchers are working on ways to better connect and understand people who have to cut themselves off from the world because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since the novel coronavirus first started to spread, quarantines have been used to help minimize the possibility of infection. To better help those forced into self-isolation, there will soon be an app for that.

Using the program WelTel, people with symptoms can share concerns and ask questions to health care professionals and receive automated messages with helpful resources.

"Isolation is tough; it's scary. People don't know what to do. We've never had an automated system with this level of virtual support before," said Dr. Richard Lester, a co-creator of WelTel and an infectious diseases specialist with Vancouver Coastal Health.

WelTel has already been used by HIV patients in Kenya. The coronavirus-specific program has now been tested in Canada, the United Kingdom, Kenya and Rwanda.

The federal government has committed $500,000 to help launch the WelTel.

"We want the systems in place before the number (of patients) gets too large. In Canada, we're still in manageable numbers, but we need to make sure we're able to handle larger numbers and support them well," Lester explained.

He said another benefit of having a platform to communicate with patients is that it will allow health authorities to collect valuable data.

"We always complain afterwards that the data was in too many different places and we didn't capture enough data – this allows us to capture some of the best data that's ever been available," he said.

Lester anticipates the app will be launched very soon – potentially within a few days.

"As early as a few days, sometimes that takes longer, but we're hoping that luck favours the prepared," he said.

At the epicentre of the outbreak, the entire city of Wuhan, China, has been under quarantine for weeks.

Half a world away, UBC researcher Yue Qian is curious about some of the unintended consequences of forced social isolation.

"They're humans, not numbers. As a sociologist, I want to understand human experiences of the quarantine in Wuhan, which is the most affected city right now," she said.

She has a personal connection to the city as well; she was born and raised there and her father is still living there.

She said she gives him "virtual company" whenever they video chat on their phones.

With new federal funding, she will be able to study how people in isolation cope, as well as some of the mental health challenges they may face.

"How can people get their daily groceries? For people who have chronic health conditions, can we help them get medicine on a regular basis? Before a government decides to use quarantine as a public health measure, we really need to think about people's needs in a more comprehensive way," she said.

Both WelTel and Qian's research are part of the federal government's $20 million pledge for coronavirus research in the country.