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Smartwatch Shown to Offer Early Covid-19 Warning

Apple Watch

(FancyCrave1, Pixabay)

9 Feb. 2021. A study shows heart rate data captured by an Apple watch can provide an early warning of impending Covid-19 infections, even before a positive test. Researchers at Mount Sinai medical center in New York describe their techniques and findings in a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

A team led by Mount Sinai medical school professors Robert Hirten and Zahi Fayad in the school’s Clinical Intelligence Center has an ongoing project called the Warrior Watch Study to track effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the medical center’s staff. While the project is looking mainly at effects of stress on the emotional well-being of health care workers, the study’s data-gathering technology — Apple watch and smartphone apps — captures other key health data, such as heart rate.

In this study, the researchers focused on heart rate variability, normally an indicator of nervous system functioning, captured with an Apple watch, series 4 or 5, worn by the 297 participants, all Mount Sinai health care workers. Participants also downloaded the Apple Health phone app that captures heart rate data from the watch. In addition, participants downloaded the Warrior Watch Study app for their Apple phones with daily questionnaires about their health and symptoms.

The questionnaires include fields for entering test results for SARS-CoV-2 viruses responsible for Covid-19 infections, both nasal swab RT-PCR and antigen tests. The Warrior Watch app also transfers health-related data, including heart rate variations, from the Apple Health app.

The Mount Sinai team collected data from participants from April to September 2020, with participants providing daily watch or phone app data for an average of 42 days. These data included heart rate measurements from the smartwatches with a large majority, 70 percent, of participants completing at least half of the daily questionnaires. The researchers applied standard biometric statistical models to calculate daily heart rate variations, which the team tracked for each participant over the study period.

Heart rate changes associated with infections seven days later

The data show 13 participants contracted SARS-CoV-2 infections during the study, according to their RT-PCR test results. Of those 13 individuals, only four reported symptoms associated with Covid-19 infections, such as loss of smell or taste, fatigue, weakness, or headaches. Some 165 study participants, including those testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, reported these symptoms.

Analyzing these data over the study period shows characteristic variations in heart rate patterns are associated with a positive RT-PCR test a full seven days before the test. In addition, the tell-tale heart rate changes indicating Covid-19 infections subside from seven to 14 days following diagnosis. Since most of those diagnosed with infections did not report Covid-19 symptoms, the authors underscore the need for techniques other than direct diagnostics to identify Covid-19 cases early on.

“This technology allows us not only to track and predict health outcomes,” says Fayad in a Mount Sinai statement, “but also to intervene in a timely and remote manner, which is essential during a pandemic that requires people to stay apart.”

“Our goal is to operationalize these platforms to improve the health of our patients and this study is a significant step in that direction,” adds Hirten. “Developing a way to identify people who might be sick even before they know they are infected would be a breakthrough in the management of Covid-19.”

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