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Wearables studied as early COVID-19 detectors

By Conway G. Gittens 20 July 2020

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Studies are underway to test whether wearable fitness trackers currently used by professional basketball players and golfers can detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus before symptoms show up. Conway G. Gittens takes a look.

When NBA superstars like LeBron James return to the court next week for the first official basketball games since the pandemic hit, eyes will be on more than just the score.

He will be wearing – along with others in the NBA – a fitness device called an Oura ring.

The ring, produced by Oura Health – is designed to track someone’s heart rate and temperature and is just one of many fitness devices now being tested to see how good they are at sounding an early warning signal about COVID-19 – before symptoms appear.

A Stanford University research team has enrolled 5,000 users of various devices such as a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. The early results have been promising, says Michael Snyder, who runs the Stanford University School of Medicine’s genomics and personalized medicine department.

“In about 80 percent of the cases, we can see heart rate go up when someone gets ill. What’s powerful is that in at least 70 percent of the cases, it goes up before at the time they’re symptomatic, meaning that we can see this heart rate go up before they realize they’re ill, and in some cases, very, very clear, like the very first case we got, the individual was actually elevated nine and a half days before they were symptomatic, so nine and a half days, it’s pretty clear they were running around ill and probably infecting other people without knowing it. They were, again, pre-symptomatic. So, we think these devices are just very, very good for early detection. The median time is actually three days.”

Fitbit is conducting its own research with an even larger sample. It has signed up over 100,000 people across the United States and Canada, including 900 already diagnosed with the virus.

Tech companies see an opportunity to not only pitch wearables as healthy lifestyle devices but also as health-monitoring devices, which, in the age of COVID-19, could help offset slower sales for other tech gadgets.

But wearable makers like Garmin are careful not to oversell. Here’s the company’s director of health fitness engineering Scott Burgett.

“First thing want to make clear is that, you know, the Garmin watch, it’s not a medical device. It’s not an FDA-cleared medical device. It’s a consumer device. But it has really powerful biometric sensing capabilities. And what… I’ll give an example. So, like your heart rate, we measure your heart rate by using an optical sensor that’s on the bottom of the watch. Our battery life is so good is that we can go for several days and measure your heart rate 24/7.

And by doing that, we’re able to tell a lot about your well-being.” But how will consumers feel knowing there’s something tracking their bodies 24-7? So far, given the health risks presented by COVID-19, NBA players don’t mind, says Oura Health CEO Harpreet Rai.

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been really appreciative and… and letting players and staff know how they’re doing through data. I think it’s just given everyone more peace of mind and more safety to be able to look at their app every morning and know how they’re doing.”

And the NBA is not the only professional league trying out a device. Professional golfers are sporting a wristband called – the Whoop.

Company founder Will Ahmed: “Well, Whoop is partnered with the PGA Tour to distribute Whoop to every player, caddy, media member….and they’re using the technology to measure everything about their bodies, but especially respiratory rate, which we’ve found is a very important statistic for understanding COVID-19.”

And that gives Whoop access to 1,000 test subjects – eager to keep a deadly virus from spreading further and possible derail already delayed sporting events.

By Reuters Editorial and Conway G. Gittens

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