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Growing evidence suggests that a smartwatch or wearable such as a Fitbit could help warn wearers of a potential COVID-19 infection prior to a positive test result.

Wearables such as the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy smartwatch, Fitbit and other devices can collect heart and oxygen data, as well as sleep and activity levels. Researchers are studying whether a body’s health data might signal an oncoming COVID-19 infection.

A COVID-19 infection may not be imminent for a person whose heart or activity data suggests a potential infection. But the increased likelihood – and the ability to alert the patient to get tested and possibly quarantine – could provide a vital tool in preventing the spread of the disease and tracking it, researchers say.

Such findings, if proven out, could lead to remote medical alerts for other possible viruses, flu and undue stress.

Even if ongoing experiments don’t lead to a rollout during the current coronavirus pandemic, “if we are hit by a different pandemic or a new pandemic, we have a means … to potentially deploy in real time some of these tools we have been working on,” said Zahi Fayad, a professor of radiology and cardiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Fayad is one of the principal investigators there who have been analyzing Apple Watch data from about 500 people in the hospital’s health care system. Those who developed COVID-19 had significant changes in their heart variability rate, a measure of nervous system function, compared to the rest of those monitored, they found.

Mount Sinai isn’t the only place with research ongoing into wearables and their potential use in identifying and tracking COVID-19. Earlier identification of a potential COVID-19 patient could reduce the time they are in public, potentially infecting others.

The University of Washington School of Medicine is currently studying how heart rate and blood oxygen readings captured by Apple Watches could provide early signs of the flu and COVID-19. At Purdue University, there’s an ongoing study of 100 participants measuring data from Samsung Galaxy smartwatches and electrocardiogram chest sensors to compare and assess smartwatch data accuracy.

“There won’t be a point where a smartwatch can tell you that you’re COVID-19 positive, but it could potentially say, ‘Within the next couple of days, you might be getting sick and should go get tested,’” said Craig Goergen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue overseeing the research team, in an announcement of the project. As part of the Stanford Healthcare Innovation Lab’s COVID-19 Wearables Study, researchers have begun alerting participants in real time through the lab’s MyPHD app about significant changes in their heart rate or other data. Since they started the alerts in December, researchers have been able to alert 70% of patients who later tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the onset of symptoms, or as they began, said Michael Snyder, professor and chair of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine.