Mapping it out

What if we could pinpoint three weeks in advance which regions can expect covid-19 outbreaks? We can.

You, too, probably never heard of Kinsa, founded in 2012 by public health specialist Inder Singh. The Kinsa Smart Thermometer uses a special thermometer and an accompanying Internet app as an early warning system for the spread of disease, most recently, covid-19.

Kinsa aggregates data well before the ill person sees a doctor or visits the hospital. The program applies artificial intelligence to identify pockets of expected illness even before they can emerge.

Data from Kinsa’s 1.5 million smart thermometers distributed nationwide has been validated in peer-reviewed research. It was shown to provide a three-week leading indicator of covid cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Kinsa also initiated a partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, modeled from Kinsa’s successful FLUency School health program, now in its sixth year, which helps families and school staff curb the spread of illness in classrooms through earlier detection and even earlier response.

Community health programs such as that at UAMS can help detect and respond to outbreaks early. I’m told UAMS hopes to use teams to get Kinsa thermometers into the households of students and staff that may experience food insecurity or that may not have an accurate thermometer easily available.

The map available at healthweather.us uses aggregate data to identify when illness is high in an area and accurately predicts its spread. Kinsa compiles temperature and symptoms from more than 1.5 million thermometers already in use nationwide.

Its covid-19 outbreak prediction model, which was relaunched this month, accurately predicts increases in cases nearly 80 percent of the time an average of 10 days beforehand. The model combines Kinsa’s data on influenza-like illness and transmission rates with confirmed covid case data to make predictions.

The program will benefit Arkansas and its residents in specific ways: More thermometers in use means more data is collected. This enables local public health officials to detect illness outbreaks early, enabling targeted interventions to halt the spread.

The thermometer and app in unison help individuals detect and respond to their illness early and appropriately. This naturally helps them get better faster and reduces the number of days they are sick while reducing community transmission.

Also, aggregate data available on what’s going at and around UAMS will help the university take early and appropriate action to keep staff safe by, for instance, disinfecting more frequently and using other often cited precautions such as social distancing, masking and hand washing.

How widely has this approach to forecasting covid been accepted? The states of Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana and Oregon all utilize Kinsa, as do New York City, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Albany. Kinsa says Fortune 200 companies also now use it to help their employees stay healthy.

Some 4,000 U.S. elementary schools, including 80 in Arkansas, are using the system this fall as a means to keep students safe and schools open.

The program will provide UAMS staff and students with Kinsa thermometers in several ways: Through food banks, during flu vaccinations, and with food delivery services for quarantined employees.

UAMS reportedly is providing the smart thermometers as a benefit for employees and students, because it allows them to check their temperatures and record any symptoms at home before they ever come to campus.

Simply put, the basic access to health care and guidance that the Kinsa app provides is a large benefit for many households. UAMS employees in the community health department also reportedly will have ongoing access to aggregate data on the level of illness among the UAMS population.

This means should illness begin to rise, they can make sure to do more disinfecting, send out relevant health notices and take other actions to ensure they can reduce spread.

Kinsa thermometers used by Arkansas residents (outside of the UAMS partnership) would include data only when used by someone who suspects illness. Predictions of looming hot spots can then be found on the HealthWeather map where they are listed daily using data from all the thermometers. If medical officials see concerning trends in a region, the system will flag it as an area where illness is rising, as it did in Arkansas back in September.

This pandemic has triggered many health innovations since January. Kinsa’s remarkable and enterprising ability to detect pockets of outbreak weeks in advance is among them.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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