Scientists say your fitness tracker could help diagnose, predict coronavirus

ATLANTA — Studies show researchers can predict if you have the coronavirus days before symptoms even show up.

They’re using your Fitbit and other health trackers to do it.

Channel 2 anchor Sophia Choi found out some scientists say they can even predict who has COVID-19 around you.

As far-fetched as it may sound, scientists told Choi they’re seeing about 95% accuracy in predicting coronavirus cases.

Cobb County resident Rob Stearns is an avid walker. His Fitbit is always on.

“This is my third one,” Stearns said. “They’re literally like having a little personal trainer.”

Now, Fitbit and other health trackers like Oura are teaming up with researchers at universities to predict if people like Stearns are infected with the COVID-19 virus.

An animation from West Virginia University shows how the devices track your nervous system, including your heart rate, respiration and temperature, your sleep patterns, your functional movement, your cognitive memory and your behavior based on questions.


“We can predict three days in advance your actual temperature with 95% accuracy, we can predict the onset of fatigue, we can predict the onset of shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing and headaches,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, who leads the team at West Virginia’s Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

A similar study is happening at Stanford University, led by Dr. Michael Snyder, who has become a real believer after his own experience.

“My heart rate went up. My skin temperature. It was all picked up by a smartwatch,” Snyder said. “That alerted me that I had Lyme disease.”

Snyder said his research can now detect COVID-19 symptoms more than a week earlier when people are asymptomatic.

“The very first case we had actually, somebody was getting ill and we can pick it up nine days before they were symptomatic. So that person they’re running around nine days, but we can see a very clear signal from their heart rate from the smartwatch,” Snyder said. “And that’s been the most challenging part of COVID, is the asymptomatic.”

Rezai told Choi he started his study by tracking front-line health workers. Now, the study is looking for more than 10,000 volunteers from all walks of life.

He said enough people have signed up already that the study can help you decide if you want to step into a certain area.

“You can actually turn on the app right now and it allows you to know in your surroundings who has a symptom, so if you’re going to a public event it tells you who around you has got symptoms of COVID -- for example who’s got fevers, who has shortness of breath, who’s got coughing.”

But that information is still pretty generic.

“We don’t know yet if we can tell the difference between a COVID-19 infection and, say, a regular flu virus or some Rhino virus infection,” Rezai said. “A worst-case scenario is we can just tell if you’re getting sick. Without knowing what kind of virus, we still think that’s pretty darn useful in a pandemic.”

You must sign up to take part in these studies and download an app. Fitbit allows you to do it right on its own app.

Stearns told Choi that he is thinking about taking part, saying his fears of getting the virus far outweigh any fears about privacy.

“I would have no problem with that. I think that it’s helpful for society,” Stearns said. “Who’s to say what could be, you know? Anything’s worth a try because it’s really inhibiting society so much and business owners. So anything that helps us, I think inevitably is good.”

Some may be skeptical about the accuracy of all this, but the scientists say the proof is in the data.

Right now, they’re still collecting that data and still looking for volunteers. In many cases, they’re even offering a free health tracker.