Coronavirus pandemic: Scientists use tech, wearables as early warning systems to tackle the outbreak

Coronavirus pandemic: Scientists use tech, wearables as early warning systems to tackle the outbreak
(Getty Images)

The past decade has allowed the development of a multitude of digital tools. Scientists are now using these tools to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. The reason: Experts believe early detection is critical for effective public health response to infectious disease outbreaks and for improving treatments.

“As more countries are gearing up to use digital technologies in the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, data and algorithms are among the best arrows in our quiver -- if they are used properly,” write experts in Nature. 

A company that makes internet-connected smart thermometers, which it has been using to track flu activity in real-time, is now utilizing the same technology in the fight against COVID-19. Real-time data from smartphone thermometers can effectively track and predict influenza activity at national and regional levels, experts said

Kinsa, the smart thermometer company, is using its real-time temperature data to create an early warning system showing where there are unusually high and growing levels of fever in the US. They have created an interactive map of influenza-like-illness across the US in which the data is displayed as a map showing current illness levels. The US Health Weather Map has been created in collaboration with Benjamin Dalziel, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s department of biology. 

This system is meant to guide public health first-responders to the areas needing further investigation and resources because something outside of the ordinary is happening. Public health officials can use the map to identify areas where illness levels are unusually high, and investigate, as well as gauge whether measures taken are working to slow the spread.

The experts clarify a few things: This is not a map of COVID-19 infections, but it shows regions where unusually high levels of illness have been detected. Inder Singh, founder and CEO, Kinsa, further explains that while they cannot definitively say this is showing COVID-19, “we can say that we are seeing unusually rapid spread in illness. Today, that is presumably COVID-19.”

“We are not directly measuring COVID-19 infections. The map shows you how much influenza-like illness above the normal expected levels we’re detecting. There are a number of possible causes, all of which may be contributing to elevations in reported illness levels such as increased healthcare-seeking behavior in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, seasonally abnormal cold/flu viruses circulating in particular communities, and COVID-19 infections,” says the company in a statement.

The team explains that they forecasted expected flu-like illness trends for every county in the continental US from March 1, before widespread COVID-19 infections were observed, and compared their real-time data to these expectations. In Brooklyn, NY, they started observing “anomalous events” into the second week of March. This provides guidance on where potential COVID-19 outbreaks may be occurring, says the team.

“Since March 1, we’ve seen a very strong correlation between cumulative atypical illness incidence and positive COVID-19 tests (at the state level) in terms of geographies affected and timing within affected geographies, which suggests that our data provide a useful indication of where COVID-19 may likely be occurring,” it says. 

The experts emphasize that it is imperative to start using the system, and similar tools, to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ultimately prevent the next outbreak. According to the last update on March 27, the map's website says, “As widespread social distancing measures take effect, feverish illness levels are dropping, and we feel this way of looking at the data gives a more accurate and comprehensive view of what’s happening.”

A member of the Brooklyn Hospital Center COVID-19 testing team calls in the next patient in line in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Wearable tech

At least one in five US adults use a mobile health app or wearable device, a trend that cuts across nearly all demographic groups and is projected to continue its growth in the coming years.

And taking advantage of this trend, the Scripps Research Translational Institute has launched an app-based research program called DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment), a national smartwatch digital surveillance clinical trial for viral outbreaks. It will analyze participants’ wearable health data, including heart rates, sleep, and activity levels, to more quickly detect the emergence of influenza, coronavirus and other fast-spreading viral illnesses. 

“We’ve got to get ahead of this outbreak; It’s obviously gotten ahead of us,” tweeted Dr Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

Scripps Research has developed the app-based study in partnership with CareEvolution, a health technology company that enables secure and reliable sharing of clinical health information.

People who are 18 or older and use a smartwatch or activity tracker, such as a Fitbit, Apple Watch, Amazfit or Garmin Watch, can join the study and consent to share their data by downloading the MyDataHelps mobile app. By harnessing key data points from these users’ wearable devices, scientists believe they can improve real-time surveillance of contagious respiratory illnesses.

“By evaluating individual changes on a day-to-day basis, researchers hope it also will be possible to help people identify when they may have a viral infection much earlier in its course, enabling earlier initiation of treatment and isolation,” says the team.

At least 1 in 5 US adults use a mobile health app or wearable device. (Getty Images)

Another institute, the University of California, San Francisco, has launched a study that will collect information from a wearable sensor. This may allow researchers to develop an algorithm that can predict the onset of symptoms characterizing COVID-19, and thus identify people who have the new coronavirus early.

The study uses an Oura Ring, which is a wearable device that measures heart rate, inter-beat interval and changes in dermal temperature and is associated with a smartphone app. 

“This is a research study to observe associations between dermal body temperature, heart rate and related metrics, and the onset of symptoms such as fever, cough, and fatigue, which can characterize COVID-19. 

Apple’s COVID-19 screening tool 

Apple has released a screening app that can help people understand what to do next about COVID-19. Users will have to answer a few questions about the symptoms, travel, and contact they have had with others. 

The screening tool is the result of a partnership between Apple, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House. The answers will not be shared with Apple or the CDC without the users’ permission.

It asks a person’s age, and whether the person is experiencing symptoms such as fever, chills, sweating, difficulty breathing, new or worsening cough, sore throat, and vomiting among others. People have to answer if they have any underlying medical conditions. Participants are also asked if they have been in an area where COVID-19 is widespread in the last 14 days, their exposure to others who are known to have COVID-19, and whether they have traveled internationally in the last 14 days. Depending on the answers, the screening app makes recommendations. This could include maintaining social distance or getting tested for COVID-19.

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