Researchers studying how Garmin smartwatches may predict COVID-19 infections

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Posted at 3:56 PM, Jul 17, 2020

OLATHE, Kan. — One day your smartwatch could ping with an alert suggesting you get tested for COVID-19.

Garmin, based in Olathe, is giving people who wear its smartwatches the option to send their biometric data to researchers who want to find out what change in biometrics could indicate a possible COVID-19 infection.

“When we first started on this (smartwatch), we were just trying to get the heart rate sensor to work and I thought that was a big deal,” said Scott Burgett, the director of Garmin health engineering.

He helped develop the first smartwatches in Olathe about five years ago. Each watch uses a sensor on the back to collect information such as a wearer’s heart rate, blood oxygen level, amount of sleep, stress level and more.

“It’s actually a super sophisticated digital health system,” Burgett said while holding a watch.

Garmin stores each user’s data so that individual users can access it to track their biometrics over time. Burgett said Garmin is now allowing users to give it clearance to share that data with one of three research groups.

Drs. Ryan Shaw and Jessilyn Dunn lead the COVIDENTIFY study at Duke University in North Carolina. They are one of the recipients of the data and described their goal to 41 Action News.

"Learning what sickness, and particularly sickness with COVID-19, looks like at the physiological level. How parameters around heart rate, sleep and movement change when someone gets sick,” Dunn said.

She envisions a future where Garmin smartwatches, Apple Watches, Fitbits and other devices alert users when a change in biometrics indicates a possible COVID-19 infection. She said early detection could help prevent the spread of the virus.

"This is really exciting to be part of the solution for COVID-19,” Shaw said, while pointing out this information could be useful for predicting other types of infections as well.

Back in Olathe, Burgett can’t believe how big an impact the little sensor he helped design is having on a worldwide pandemic.

“That’s great, that’s societal impact,” he said. “That helps our community, our country, the world. How often do you get to work on a product that has that kind of an impact? It’s really nice and I’m very excited about it.”

It’s not too late to sign up for the COVIDENTIFY study. Having a smartwatch is not a necessity. There is a daily survey component to the study.

Garmin also is working with two other similar studies. The DETECT study by Scripps Research hopes to improve the response to outbreaks in the future. And PhysioQ launched the NEO study focused on family health.

Many of the studies offer discounts for participants who want to buy a Garmin smartwatch. Garmin’s watches vary in price from about $120 to more than $1,500.