LOUISVILLE, KY—Veterans struggling with anxiety, depression, and isolation as COVID-19 continues to rage across the country have a virtual buddy to help them through. Annie, a new program from the VA’s Office of Connected Care, provides guidance to veterans to manage their mental and physical health through the pandemic. 

Even as some VA facilities have reopened, many veterans continue to receive their care through telehealth, while others may have skipped appointments altogether. With coronavirus infection rates rising in nearly all states now, many veterans may feel more worried and lonely than ever.

For those with post-traumatic stress disorder or serious mental illness, the need to carefully manage interactions and potential exposure could make the outside world appear more threatening. That could cause even veterans who had managed their conditions well to deteriorate to some degree.  

Annie is available for free to any veteran with a cellphone with texting capability.

Annie has two services available by subscription. The first, Coronavirus Precautions, sends educational texts several times a week that help veterans gain a better understanding of COVID-19 and how to protect themselves from infection. Messages also ask veterans how they are feeling and whether they are experiencing any common symptoms of the novel coronavirus, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. If they are, the program helps monitor symptoms and tells the veteran when he or she should contact a nurse triage line or their VA care team.

The second service, Coping during COVID, addresses mental and emotional health issues associated with the pandemic. Veterans who are suffering from anxiety or are feeling particularly cut off from friends, family, and their usual support system can turn to the program to learn to cope with life in light of shutdowns and social distancing. The self-care tool sends a message to enrolled veterans several times a week that asks if they need a coping tip. If a veteran wants a suggestions, Annie suggests one of more than 60 activities that can help reduce anxiety, depression, anger, and loneliness.

Annie’s messages of support and reassurance help veterans feel more connected and in control, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. The study evaluated survey responses from more than 1,100 veterans across all 50 states.1

More than 5,000 veterans signed up for Annie’s Coronavirus Precautions service when it was initially released. Researchers at the University of Louisville found that veterans relied on Annie to help evaluate symptoms and answer questions about the disease first, reducing the demand on the VA’s call center and healthcare professionals.

“The potential impact of virtual tools on health care is incredible,” said Jason Saleem, PhD, assistant professor at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville. “Especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, a tool like this can give patients reassurance while preventing unnecessary calls and office visits.”

  1. Saleem JJ, Read JM, Loehr BM, Frisbee KL, Wilck NR, Murphy JJ, Vetter BM, Herout J. Veterans’ Response to an Automated Text messaging Protocol During the COVID-19 Pandemic. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2020 May 29: ocaa122.