Sensing COVID-19 days before symptoms appear is the goal of new wireless, wearable technology local researchers have been rolling out to frontline workers.

Production of the devices is a full-scale operation at Northwestern’s Querrey Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics.

“It’s pretty much printed circuits, said Director of Research Anthony Banks. “Printing process similar process like you would screen print a t-shirt you can screen print the components and put them in place on a flexible device.”

Orginially designed to monitor babies the intensive care unit, the flexible sensors measure vital signs without cumbersome wires and ledes. But when COVID-19 came to town, the research team tweaked their model to detect critical, yet subtle, early signs of coronavirus.

“We’re seeing in some COVID-19 patients that cough 100 times or more per hour.” said Medical Director Dr. Steve Xu. If you think about how many respiratory droplets are being produced but also a sign of whether they are getting better or not.”

There’s a reading for respiratory rate, a helpful gauge for shortness of breath and a separate pulse oximeter measures blood-oxygen levels.

“We know in COVID-19 there are certain patients that have silent hypoxemic patients, which means they have low blood oxygenation, and they don’t even know it,” Dr. Xu said.

The data is analyzed using artificial intelligence algorithms. the senors are already in use among frontline workers and patients in the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab and Northwestern Hospital.

“It’s mechanically invisible. You can see how stretchy and flexible this is. Most of our users the biggest compliment we get is they forget they even have it on,” Dr. Xu said.

Tanya Adell-O’Neal will never forget her struggle with COVID-19. The 53-year-old nurse was hospitalized for two weeks. With just one lung, her underlying condition put her at great risk for severe complications.

“I just had that overwhelming feeling that I would not be coming back home because by the time I got to the hospital,” Adell-O’Neal said. “I was in very bad shape. I felt like someone had a belt across my chest, and no matter how much I tried to inhale I just couldn’t, there was no air transferring into the lung.”

Now she wears the sensor as part of an ongoing clinical trial to validate the technology and to help progress the science she knows will lead to a better understanding of the virus.

“The sensor makes me feel a lot more comfortable being at home.” Adell-O’Neal said.

More than 1,200 COVID-19 patients have been treated at University of Illinois Health. Some of them are employees at the hospital.

“We have almost 7000 employees here at UI Health,” Medical Officer Dr. Terry Vanden Hoek said. “We hire employees from our community. We try very hard to do that, and so our employees look like the population we serve, very diverse, but they also have some of the same risk factors that contribute to COVID-19 mortality.”

That includes hypertension, diabetes and lung disease. Dr. Vanden Hoek partnered with the Chicago Medical Society to bring sensor technology to UI Health employees who test positive for the virus.

“The issue that we’re finding is that patients may have more symptoms than they realize. They may be sicker than they think, and we have had patients come into our emergency department that had very low oxygen levels, and they didn’t even realize it, complete surprise.” Dr. Vanden Hoek said. “We think that if they had known how sick they were a few days before that we could have helped them and maybe even avoided an intensive care unit stay or have to even be on a ventilator.”

Those who opt-in while recovering from receive the sensor kit from Physiq, a local company that develope the artificial intelligence platform used to track a wide range of physiologic measurements in patients.

“The way this works is the AI takes data from any wearable sensor, builds a personalized model for that patient so we can compare them to themselves. That allows us to see very little changes in physiology. One of the advantages of using AI with a wearable sensor is we literally can see these changes before the patient even feels the symptoms,” said Physiq’s Gary Conkright.

The Northwestern team hopes to get FDA approval for their sensor system this fall. They hope to roll it out many more populations, including those living in assisted living facilities. The Physiq algorithm has other applications, it’s used to track subtle changes in COPD and heart patients.

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