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Could “wearables” deliver early warning for COVID infection?

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Since the pandemic began, companies that design and sell wearable, like Fitbit, Apple and Garmin (to name a few), have been collaborating and encouraging their customers to participate in research trials to look for patterns that could detect potential illness early on, especially in the presymptomatic yet contagious time period. Researchers use the data from the devices to track vital signs such as heart rate and skin temperature, which are known to elevate when the body is fighting off an infection, and use the data to create algorithms that could help indicate when the immune system is acting up.

In one such study still being conducted at Stanford, the COVID-19 Wearables Study, early results showed that the team was able to detect signs of coronavirus before or at the time of diagnosis in 11 out of 14 patients by looking at changes in their heart rates as documented on their Fitbits. Jennifer Radin, who is leading the DETECT study at Scripps research says  “When your heart beats faster than usual, it can mean that you’re coming down with a cold, flu, coronavirus or other viral infection. Your sleep and daily activities can also provide clues. Being able to detect changes to these measurements early could allow us to improve surveillance, prioritize individuals for testing and help keep workplaces and communities safe.” The DETECT study looks at a large set of anonymized data from thousands of volunteers who are wearing smart watches to study patterns that might reveal the onset of viral infections.

Additionally, there will soon be an updated wearable on the market that will certainly be targeted and used in these studies- Apple announced today that their new Series 6 Apple Watch will include a blood oxygen sensor. This sensor reportedly will be able to give you a current reading within 15 seconds and will also be tracking the levels in the background. Blood oxygen levels, which are typically read by a pulse oximeter at your doctor’s office, are known to decline in many patients with COVID, however not necessarily as an early sign, but rather more likely as the symptoms are becoming more serious. It may be that this functionality becomes more useful in monitoring disease course rather than detecting it, but it will be interesting to see how it adds to the ongoing research.

So far the data has been quite promising, but certainly there is a lot more work to do and less than a quarter of people in the US use wearables, so we can only hope that it becomes a small part of the solution. Additionally, researchers are quick to remind users that wearable technology should not be viewed as a replacement for a call or visit to the doctor. If you have a wearable and are interested in participating to further this body of research, you can login to see if you are eligible for the Stanford COVID-19 Wearables study or the Scripp’s DETECT study. Read more here.

(Jackie Phillips, September 14, 2020)