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USF Wearable Devices Study Aims To Predict When COVID-19 Symptoms Will Worsen


Researchers in several University of South Florida departments - including medicine, nursing and business - are recruiting volunteers from Tampa General Hospital's COVID-19 clinic for a new wearable devices study to predict when symptoms will worsen.

Health News Florida's Daylina Miller spoke with the principal investigator, Matthew Mullarkey, about the study, which is working to determine why some people get so sick from COVID-19 while others don't.

Daylina Miller: Can you tell us a little about about this study?

Matthew Mullarkey: 90 plus percent of us are going to go through the viral progression in our bodies and come out the other end just fine. What intrigued us as researchers is the fact that study after study is showing that about 8%, though, of otherwise healthy adults, no secondary condition of any kind, are having some kind of - I'm using the word "allergic reaction" - to this virus.

And when they have this allergic reaction, their physiology goes sideways rather fast. It's leading to blood clots. It's leading to respiratory failure. It's leading to heart failure. It's leading to other organ failure, esophageal issues, neurological issues. And those are really quite devastating effects of what otherwise should be a natural progression of a virus.

And we asked the research question, can we figure out which physiologies are going to have which vital signs going sideways, and then maybe give an early warning to those adults?

Miller: And how are you finding out what these early warning signs might be? What kind of equipment are you using to monitor people during this study? And how does that research actually play out in practicality?

Mullarkey: We partnered with a firm called Shimmer Technologies. They're based out of Ireland and Boston. And they have really sensitive monitors that are wearable devices. They're very minimally invasive. They're no more invasive than typical, you know, heart monitor, chest strap or wrist monitor or finger monitor.

But their devices happen to be very, very capable of detecting small variations in vital signs. They also capture data at very high rates.

So over the typical disease progression of this virus, which is somewhere between 21 and 30 days, what we have discovered is that we can mount these devices on volunteers. And they can wear these devices for that period of time. And we can capture something on the order of 100,000 vital sign data points over that 20 to 30 days.

Miller: What's the next step after you collect the data? Where does that data go? What do you do with it?

Mullarkey: What we want is a repeatable signature. What we want is signature ABCD with these particular negative outcomes, and then we'll do it again. And when we go back and do it again, what we'd like to do is have a green light/red light associated with the next group of patients.

So that next 100, 150 patients who wear the device might also be able to get a little signal that says, “hey, we think you’re green” or “we think you may want to go talk to your medical professional and tell them the device indicated there might be an early warning.”

We think we can get about a two to four day advance on this physiology, but only time will tell.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.