• As the US continues to experience widespread testing shortages in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago researchers have developed a novel solution to the problem.
  • It’s a wearable health monitor in the form of a patch that sits below the throat and continuously checks for coronavirus symptoms, like coughing and rising body temperature.
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Earlier this week, Arizona hospitalist Dr. Matt Heinz told one news outlet that he’s seen cases of patients early in the coronavirus pandemic who died while waiting to be tested for the presence of the COVID-19 virus — cases in which the symptoms looked very much like those for COVID-19.

You can find plenty of examples of that, showing how adequate testing remains a problem in the US, even after more than 1.2 million cases of the coronavirus have been identified here and more than 73,000 people have died. Couple that with still-widespread stay-at-home orders, and you have a situation that practically cries out, at least to some researchers, for a simple at-home test that catches the virus early. Something like the new experimental wearable health monitor developed by Chicago researchers at Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which watches for signs of the coronavirus and can alert doctors remotely to its presence.

As you can see above, the device is a patch around the size of a large postage stamp. It’s soft, flexible, and thin, and it sits just below the visible dip at the base of the throat. That’s because it’s meant to monitor signs of the virus like intense coughing and labored or irregular breathing, as well as respiratory sounds and heart rate and body temperature changes that indicate the presence of the virus.

Once such signs are detected, the patch wireless sends data to a cloud service that’s HIPPA-protected, and data is able to then be monitored by physicians.

“The most recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that the earliest signs of a COVID-19 infection are fever, coughing, and difficulty in breathing,” said Northwestern professor John A. Rogers, who led the development of the technology.

He added that: “We developed customized devices, data algorithms, user interfaces, and cloud-based data systems in direct response to specific needs brought to us by frontline healthcare workers. We’re fully engaged in contributing our expertise in bioelectronic engineering to help address the pandemic, using technologies that we are able to deploy now, for immediate use on actual patients and other affected individuals.”

The reason why researchers say a device like this is so nervous is partly because many patients’ symptoms disappear — before reappearing all of a sudden, this time causing a deterioration that may take only a few hours. Other patients have tested positive for the virus after recovering and initially testing negative for it. This is why continuous patient monitoring may be increasingly viewed as a critical tool in the fight against the virus.

“Having the ability to monitor ourselves and our patients — and being alerted to changing conditions in real time — will give clinicians a new and important tool in the fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Mark Huang, a physician at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.