A study claims fitness trackers could play a valuable part in detecting and tracking the spread of coronavirus

By Jason Duaine Hahn
May 05, 2020 04:23 PM
Credit: Fitbit

While fitness trackers are great for counting your steps, they may also play an important part in the fight against coronavirus.

One of the principal concerns surrounding the spread of coronavirus has been asymptomatic carriers — people who show no symptoms and could unknowingly spread the disease — and people who only show mild symptoms that don't immediately alert them to the infection.

But according to the Scripps Research Institute, fitness trackers may soon be an invaluable tool in alerting people to a coronavirus infection soon after they've contracted the disease and before any symptoms set in. This may help save their lives and the lives of people who could come in contact with them.

In a report published in January that focused on influenza, a highly infectious seasonal disease that kills thousands of people every year, Scripps detailed how fitness trackers could be used to alert health officials to emerging outbreaks in real time.

By using de-identified data from tens of thousands of Fitbit owners in the United States over a two-year span, scientists were able to "significantly improve predictions of influenza-like illness at the state level" when compared with data from the Centers for Disease Control.

The key sources of information given by the fitness trackers were sleep, activity and heart tracking data.

Credit: Fitbit

“When people get an infection, their resting heart rate tends to increase and their daily activities will change, as will sleep patterns,” explained epidemiologist Jennifer Radin of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

“By leveraging wearable technology that a large share of our population is already using, public health officials may be able to identify influenza-like illness rates faster and more precisely than what is currently possible," Radin, the first author of the report, continued.

Fitbit is now collaborating with the Scripps Research Institute and Stanford Medicine to determine if this information could help provide an early indication of a viral illness like coronavirus.

“With access to 24/7 real-time data from these devices, I can envision a time when it may be possible to identify illness rates on a daily basis rather than weekly, providing even more timely surveillance,” Radin said.

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“This sensor-based tracking technique could even hold value on a more global level, in situations where disease surveillance sites and laboratories are not always available," she added.

As noted by The Hill, other companies such as Finnish health start-up Oura and Whoop Strap are also looking into research that could use fitness trackers to identify clues of a coronavirus infection in asymptomatic carriers.

One recent example of the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers involves the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which became a hotbed of coronavirus cases in April. According to Reuters, nearly 60 percent of the over 600 sailors who tested positive for coronavirus had no symptoms.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the United States has seen more than 1.1 million cases and 70,338 deaths since the deadly disease began to spread around the country, according to a New York Times database.

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