Can Smart Thermometers Track the Spread of the Coronavirus?
A company that makes internet-connected thermometers has followed the flu more closely than the C.D.C. can. Now the devices may be turning up cases of COVID-19.
A company that uses internet-connected thermometers to predict the spread of the flu says it is tracking the coronavirus in real-time – something that had been impossible, given the lack of testing for the disease.
Kinsa Healthhas sold or given away more than a million smart thermometers to households in which two million people reside, and thus can record fevers almost as soon as consumers experience them.
For the last few years, Kinsa’s interactive maps have accurately predicted the spread of flu around the United States about two weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s surveillance tool, the weekly FluView tracker.
The thermometer data “acts as an early warning system for illness spreading,” said Inder Singh, the company’s founder. The C.D.C.’s system lags because it relies on weekly reports from hundreds of doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms about what symptoms they are seeing in patients.
Company scientists are uniquely positioned to identify unusual clusters of fever because they have years of data for expected flu cases in each ZIP code. A sudden spike that far exceeds estimates for flu for a given date may well indicate the coronavirus has arrived.
Medical experts were enthusiastic about the possibility that smart thermometers could be used to track the virus in the United States. Having millions of data points allows Kinsa to produce daily maps showing which counties are seeing spiking fevers.
The most common symptoms of infection with the coronavirus is a fever – about 90% of patients suffer from it, according to the World Health Organization.
“This is very, very exciting,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “This is 21st-century disease surveillance, and we’ve been rooted in the mid-20th century with something very labor-intensive.”
Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said: “If this tells you where there are new major clusters of fever, it tells you where to swoop in with your test kits.”
Kinsa’s latest map of fever spikes shows areas that are known to have many cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. But the data also point to spots in Florida, Michigan, Arizona, and eastern Texas, where not as many cases have been reported.
Just last Saturday, Kinsa’s data indicated an unusual rise in fevers in South Florida, even though it was not known to be a COVID-19 epicenter. Within days, testing showed that South Florida had indeed become an epicenter.
Dr. Nirav Shah, a former New York State health commissioner who is an adviser to Kinsa, said real-time fever data “could speed up public health the way Twitter sped up the news cycle.”
Demand for Kinsa’s smart thermometers has skyrocketed since the coronavirus pandemic began, Mr. Singh said, and the company is now selling 10,000 a day, which is creating production problems but also multiplying the amount of data coming in each day.
The thermometers connect to a cellphone app that instantly transmits their readings to the company. Users can also enter other symptoms they feel. The app then gives them general advice on when to seek medical attention.
Because influenza usually produces higher, more protracted fevers than common colds do, the company’s software estimates which ZIP codes appear to be hit by flu rather than by other, milder cold viruses.