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Wearable Devices to Detect COVID-19 and Use for Contact Tracing: Is It Possible?



When paired with symptoms, the data Wearable devices passively collect help to identify COVID-19 in symptomatic individuals. To help with the ongoing search for COVID-19 solutions, researchers discovered that data from wearable devices —Fitbits, Apple Watches, and the like — can be used to detect the illness. Since about one-in-five Americans already uses a smartwatch or fitness tracker, it’s no wonder why the government and our researchers look to seize the opportunity.

21% americans use smart watches or fitness trackers


In The News: Wearable Devices for COVID-19 detection

Last year, Singapore sought to introduce wearable devices for contact tracing, which sparked public outcry. An online petition urging the public to reject its use for COVID-19 contact tracing has garnered more than 17,500 signatures, as concerned Singapore residents worry about it being too intrusive and a breach of their privacy. Countries such as Hong Kong and South Korea do employ digital wristbands to track people’s movements under quarantine. Indeed, security is a crucial factor in ensuring a positive user experience for wearable devices.

In May of 2020, Fitbit announced the Fitbit COVID-19 study‘s launch to build an algorithm that can detect COVID-19 before any symptoms. More than 100,000 Fitbit users across the U.S. and Canada have joined the test in over two months, resulting in more than 1,000 positive cases of the virus reported. The study presented a unique opportunity to evaluate how the power of the Fitbit community and wearable device users, in general, can help better understand the complex disease.

Fitbit study findings:
  • On average, heart rate variability hits its lowest point the day after symptoms are reported
  • Increases in resting heart rate normalize, on average, at least 5–7 days after the start of symptoms
  • Breathing rate peaks typically on day 2 of symptoms, but there is a slight elevation, on average, for up to 3 weeks after symptoms start
Fitbit Study Findings

Wearable Devices: Can they Help Detect COVID-19?

To answer this, let’s check out a pro golfer’s real COVID-19 story.

Nick Watney didn’t feel anything was wrong when he proceeded to Harbour Town Gold Club during the PGA Tour last year. He didn’t even look ill to onlookers, and despite warm, humid temperatures, he felt well enough to play the second round of the RBC Heritage.

Watney realized something was wrong because of an abnormal reading on the Whoop band he was wearing around his arm. Many golfers use wearables as a way to regulate their health. Watney’s latest wearable device measurement was above the normal range, with the information showing that his breathing rate (respirations per minute) from the night before. He assumed that this could be a sign of illness or another condition. His wristband showed that his breath was irregular, which is a concern given the ongoing pandemic.

Former Bulldog Nick Watney became the first PGA TOUR member to contract and test positive for COVID-19

He wasn’t short of breath and had no fever, so he didn’t think he was sick until he noticed the abnormal wrist band readings. He was tested negative before the tour, as were the other players.

Watney contacted the tournament official to get checked once more before his game. Soon after, he was called and instructed to leave the course right away – his test returned positive for coronavirus.

The spike in his respiratory rate graph was well-timed, and thanks to his wristband’s alert, he was able to link the symptoms to a possible COVID-19 infection. So, while wearable fitness trackers don’t exactly detect COVID-19, the device’s many health monitoring features can be used to detect signs of the illness.

Michael Snyder, who studies wearables as director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford, says that while many see them as fitness trackers, it’s seen by government officials and health professionals as health monitors.

The PGA, LPGA, NBA, WNBA, and schools like Alabama and Tennessee have all acquired smart devices, including watches, wristbands, and rings for their players with the hopes to flag early indicators of the virus. However, it also came with questions about the privacy of athletes. The U.S. has around 30 million Fitbit users, with tens of millions of people using devices like Whoop, Apple Watch, and Garmin Watches.

Snyder began studying whether wearables could detect COVID-19, which is covered here. Data were derived from 5,000 consenting adults to share their device information, including historical data from a smaller group of people who previously tested positive for the virus while wearing their smartwatches. The results? In about 80% of subjects who contracted COVID-19, heart rate spiked significantly after infection, noticed several days before other symptoms appeared.

The future of wearable electronic devices.

There are a couple of caveats here. There’s no definite way of concluding that a spike in heart rate, or a sudden change in other metrics, is COVID-19. Information needs to be contextualized for every individual and their circumstances. Further study, however, might reveal more game-changing results for the way people think about these devices.


Testing for the detection of COVID-19 is usually time-consuming, costly, and requires professional expertise. Wearable devices, such as smartwatches and activity trackers, can provide useful insights into our health and well-being. These are logical reasons why wearable electronic devices, which allow monitoring of physiological signals, can detect both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19.

About Voler Systems

Located in Silicon Valley and with more than 40 years of electronic design experience, Voler Systems continues to be a leading custom product design consulting company providing high-quality electrical engineering and firmware development. Voler Systems ensures delivery of quality products, on time, on budget with low risk. All projects are undertaken with good specifications, the right people, quality design, constant communication, and a smooth transfer to manufacturing.



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