The Kinsa smart thermometer began mapping out coronavirus hotspots in mid-March with accuracy that caught the eye of public health experts around the country.
The thermometer was developed eight years ago to track illnesses like seasonal flu. The data is uploaded immediately after people use the thermometer and is available for free to scientists, public officials and the people who use the device.
All information regarding a user’s medical condition remains anonymous, Kinsa CEO Inder Singh says. The company’s website, healthweather.us, shows fever levels across the country, but it isn’t possible to identify an individual based on what’s shown.
Kinsa’s data has also proved the effectiveness of social distancing and is now pinpointing new spikes around the country.
After states shut down their economies, Singh says Kinsa data noticed declining levels of fever within three to seven days due to social distancing. Suddenly, the Kinsa thermometer became one of the first real-time data sources at the beginning of the pandemic to prove social distancing was effective.
“It showed that people's sacrifices at home were working,” he says. “People should know that they were helping to save others’ lives.”
Now that many states are reopening, Singh says Kinsa data is able to show high transmission levels in places that are now coronavirus hotspots, including Arizona.
“On May 29, we saw that Arizona was having higher than expected levels of transmission,” he says.
In order to identify transmission rates, he says Kinsa uses the fever data and subtracts out what you might see from cold and flu transmissions. The remaining data “is often indicative of COVID-19,” he says.
“So we now have two different but related measures to identify outbreaks early,” he says. “And that transmission data may very well be an even stronger signal and an even earlier signal.”
On June 9, he says Kinsa detected higher than expected levels of transmission “indicative of an outbreak” in both Florida and Texas. Last week, Kinsa witnessed the same rising transmission levels in Oklahoma and Missouri.
Those four states are all now experiencing increasing cases of COVID-19, as well as hospitalizations.
The spikes that Kinsa data documented happened more than nine days before positive COVID-19 cases increased in those states. Singh says Kinsa data saw the temperatures go up before people got tested.
Because people use Kinsa’s smart thermometers during the first sign or symptom of an illness, the device can detect sickness early on.
“One thing that is a challenge in this environment is the health care system doesn't see mildly symptomatic spread. We do,” he says. “We get to see when someone gets sick, but perhaps never enters the health care system because they don't get sick enough.”
The health care system is delayed in its ability to count for cases because doctors don’t see a patient, on average, until five or eight days after they first experience symptoms, he says.
In the days between worsening symptoms and seeing a medical professional, the sick person could have spread it far and wide, he says.
“So it's all these delays that compound, which is why the outbreak is going from a flame to an inferno before the health care system can detect it,” he says. “And we get to detect it when it's still a flame.”
Kinsa data can be used to stop an outbreak in its tracks. The data can also alert local governments and health care facilities early on to be prepared for an influx of sick patients, he says.
And rather than take broad measures, Kinsa data can geographically pinpoint where the next outbreak might occur, he says.
Last week, Kinsa data was showing rises in Louisiana, Missouri, Maine and Oklahoma. Maine, since then, has delayed some reopening plans. Oklahoma, as Kinsa forecasted, has become one of the country's hot spots and remains a location of concern for Singh.
Kinsa smart thermometers are for sale, but the company has also given away thermometers in order to receive more data for precise location outbreak detection.
“The more people that participate, the more pinpointed we can get with the outbreak detection,” he says.
The company has partnered with a number of states such as Connecticut, Oregon and Idaho, and was included in Philadelphia’s reopening plan, Singh says. The goal is to get more thermometers out to communities, “especially to underserved communities who might seek care and treatment later,” he says.
The more people use the smart thermometers, the better scientists can get at detecting hot spots, he says. And it’s not only beneficial to local government, health care systems and communities, but to individuals.
“You get the data. You get to see whether there's illness going around your local community. You get tools to help you understand how to respond to your illness,” he says. “The thermometer connects into a medical guidance system to provide you with age-based medical guidance.”
Singh and Kinsa employees have been doing this work for years — and now scientists, researchers and policymakers are scrambling to get their hands on it. He says it’s bittersweet that it took a pandemic for the important work to be recognized, but he is “thrilled” that Kinsa’s real-time data can now help communities across the country.
He says he wants to make sure decision-makers, who are crafting reopening plans that “essentially pit livelihoods versus life,” are using the data to help them with their difficult choices.
“This is the whole reason we started the company is to detect, predict and help respond to outbreaks,” he says. “And this is an opportunity for us to use the data to have a really massive public health impact.”
This segment aired on June 25, 2020.