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Wearable, wireless COVID-19 symptom tracker could help spot subtle signs of disease

Researchers say the small, flexible device can help them track small changes related to coughing, breathing and body temperature.

EVANSTON, Ill. — Researchers at Northwestern University and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago have developed a device people can wear to track the signs of COVID-19. They hope the device, which can measure and interpret coughing, respiratory activity and other symptoms 24 hours a day, could provide subtle insights into the disease.

This device could allow COVID-19 patients to be monitored 24 hours a day after they've left the hospital. It could also spot the early signs of the disease for frontline workers and for people at higher risk of serious symptoms.

“The growing amount of information and understanding around COVID-19 as a disease will be critically important to containing and treating the current outbreak as well as those that might occur in the future,” John Rogers, Professor of Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern, said in a statement. “We hope, and we believe, that these devices may help in these efforts by identifying and quantifying characteristics and essential features of cough and respiratory activity associated with this disease.”

The device is about the size of a postage stamp and is worn just below the suprasternal notch. That's the dip at the base of the throat. The device is soft, flexible and wireless.

Credit: Northwestern University
Researchers at Northwestern University say this device can track and coughing and respiratory symptoms of COVID-19 patients 24 hours a day.

"From this location, the device monitors coughing intensity and patterns, chest wall movements (which indicate labored or irregular breathing), respiratory sounds, heart rate and body temperature, including fever," the university said.

The information is transmitted to a cloud server which is protected by HIPPA, so personal medical data remains confidential.

Northwestern says constantly monitoring the wearer is crucial to understanding the disease. Some COVID-19 patients recover, but then later test negative only to test positive again. Others have appeared to recover before suddenly getting severely ill. 

The device, initially conceived to monitor recovering stroke patients, can measure vibrations from the throat and chest. While some people may try to record their cough on their smartphone, Rogers says this device eliminates background sounds that smartphones may also pick up.

"The measurement capabilities are unique to this device platform — they cannot be accomplished using traditional watch or ring-style wearables that mount on the wrist or the finger.” Rogers added.

The device currently does not measure blood oxygen levels, but researchers anticipate that will be added to the next generation of the device.

About 25 COVID-19 patients began using the devices two weeks ago and Northwestern is making plans to distribute it to others.

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