4 ways wearables may detect COVID-19 in the future

Medical researchers and tech companies have been working since the start of the pandemic to test whether wearable devices can function as a type of personal early-detection warning system to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Using wearable sensor data from healthy people and individuals who have COVID-19, researchers are able to compare and look for patterns in the data to then develop artificial intelligence tech that may alert other device users whose own data may begin to resemble patterns in COVID-19 patients. However, the method will only be successful after physiological data collection is further researched and at-home testing is made widely available, Eric Topol, MD, executive vice president at Scripps Research, told The Journal.

“In the months ahead people will have at their home a testing kit that will give us an answer in 15 minutes, and hopefully people will be using wearables,” Dr. Topol said. “You wouldn’t do the test unless your sensors were coming together to tell you something is going on.”

Here are four bodily measurements wearables can track that, when combined in a single device, may help with detecting COVID-19:

1. Temperature tracking. Wearable devices such as the Oura ring smart temperature reading patches can monitor and compare a user’s daily temperature readings to generate an overall average view of the individual’s health. However, more than half of people infected witch COVID-19 never develop a fever, so tracking soley temperature will not do much, according to Dr. Topol.

2. Heart rate. Heart rate and activity data may be a stronger indicator of when someone is getting sick. At Scripps Research Institute, researchers have found that resting heart-rate elevation combined with decreased physical activity and increased amounts of sleep were a clear signal for detecting the flu, and early findings from the institute’s current study on COVID-19 have indicated the same.

3. Cough. Chicago-based Northwestern University’s biomedical engineering lab created a wearable patch that rests below the user’s front base of the neck to capture temperature, heart rate, body motion, chest wall movements and respiratory sounds for coughs. For some COVID-19 patients admitted at Northwestern’s hospitals, the researchers observed coughing rates that reached an average of 100 per hour. 

4. Blood oxygen. Pulse oximeters can detect when an individual has a low blood-oxygen level, which in turn could indicate a COVID-19 infection. Levels dropping into the 80 percent range may be a signal for the severity of COVID-19, however, Dr. Topol said blood-oxygen is only helpful for people who have been diagnosed with the infection to gauge the severity of the illness.

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