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Smart watches could help fight COVID-19. Here’s how.

mySA logo mySA 1/19/2021 Joshua Sargent
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People who don’t know they have the virus that causes COVID-19 are significantly more likely to spread it, accounting for more than 50% of transmissions according to some studies. Early detection is the key to slowing both this pandemic and future pandemics, and a growing number of scientists believe that smart watches – which measure subtle changes in heart rate and temperature – could hold the answer.

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Of course, thermometers and methods of taking a patient’s pulse have existed for centuries and are easily administered by laypeople in their homes. But with COVID-19, the symptoms are so subtle, and the human body so inconsistent, that it’s easy for its symptoms to be missed.

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“You’re usually told that the normal temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees, which is wrong,” Dr. Michael Snyder, from the Center of Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford, told American Innovation. “For like 25% of people, it’s 94.6 degrees, and for 75% of people, it’s 99.1.”

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That means if you’re one of the people with a lower than normal body temperature, a fever that increasese your body by 4 degrees Fahrenheit will read as perfectly healthy on a normal thermometer.

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An Apple Watch, or other smartwatch, solves this problem by monitoring your health constantly. It will know, hours after you purchase it, your consistent body temperature and how much it fluctuates during a normal day. Once you start moving outside that range, the smartwatch will know far faster than a regular thermometer that something is wrong.

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Specific to COVID-19, one of the earliest symptoms is a mild increase in heart rate, which can be as small as two beats per minute. Since the difference comes down to heart rate variability, rather than a steady increase in beats-per-minute, such a change would be almost impossible to detect with a finger to the wrist or even a stethoscope. But various studies have found that you can detect those symptoms as often as 63% of the time.

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“Our goal was to use tools to identify infections at time of infection or before people knew they were sick,” Rob Hirten, an assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told CBS News.

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In Hirten’s study, Apple Watches are showing “significant changes in HRV metrics up to seven days before individuals had a positive nasal swab.”

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Apple has not participated in the study, but CEO Tim Cook commented that “most of the money in healthcare goes to cases that weren’t identified early enough. It will take some time, but things that we are doing now … give me a lot of cause for hope.”

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