Smart Thermometers Are Being Used In New York City Schools to Detect Disease

Kinsa, a technology startup, will send up to 100,000 internet-connected thermometers to primary schools around the city.

A California-based software start-up has made headlines several times in recent years for defeating public health officials at their own game.

The start-up, Kinsa, which makes internet-connected thermometers, has routinely detected the spread of seasonal flu weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And when Covid hit last year, the company saw unusual spikes in fevers about 18 days before states recorded peaks in deaths.

“The difference is not that we’re smarter,” said Inder Singh, the founder and chief executive of Kinsa. “We’ve got better data.”

Many disease-tracking programmes, like the CDC’s flu monitoring system, rely on data supplied by hospitals, laboratories, and other health-care institutions, such as patient symptoms, test findings, inpatient admissions, and fatalities. Kinsa’s devices, on the other hand, send out a sickness signal as soon as someone is unwell enough to take a temperature. “In simple terms, we talk to mildly symptomatic patients,” Mr. Singh said. “The health care system misses them entirely.”

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Now, the company is putting its pandemic prognostication skills to a new test in a partnership with the New York City Department of Health. Over the coming months, Kinsa will distribute as many as 100,000 free smart thermometers through the city’s elementary schools and will make the resulting data available to local health officials. The goal is to create a citywide early warning and response system for outbreaks of Covid, the flu and other infectious diseases.

“One of the most significant lessons we learned from the Covid pandemic is the need of having as precise information as possible, in real time, about how illnesses travel through communities,” said Dr. Jay Varma, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s senior adviser for public health.

The Kinsa partnership, he added, is “going to help us strengthen our ability to understand new and emerging diseases that may pop up in the school community.”

This is not Kinsa’s first foray into schools. Since 2015, it has distributed thermometers through more than 4,000 individual schools across the United States as part of its FLUency program. But the New York City initiative will be its first citywide rollout.

The corporation began giving 5,000 free thermometers to teachers, staff members, and families at 50 elementary schools in city neighborhoods that had been particularly hard-hit by Covid last month. Kinsa plans to expand the programme to all of the city’s primary schools in the autumn.

Officials from Kinsa and City Hall emphasize that the initiative is completely optional. If parents wish to join, they may download Kinsa’s app and order a free thermometer. Schools that sign up for the initiative will send Kinsa’s pamphlets home with their children’ families.

“There’s nothing about this program that is mandated,” Dr. Varma said. “Schools are not required to participate. Families are not required to participate, and of course they can kind of discontinue it at any time.”

The program — which is partly being funded by Lysol — will be free to schools and families.

Readings from the thermometers will be sent to the accompanying app, which also asks users to log any other symptoms they may be experiencing. Depending on what they report, the app may recommend that a child stay home from school, suggest a visit to the doctor or direct users to a nearby Covid testing site. School administrators and families can view information about grade-level trends at their own schools — that there are four ailing fourth-graders, for instance.

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City health officials will also have access to this aggregated, anonymized data, which they hope will help them identify unusual illness clusters earlier than is currently possible. “It’s measuring something that we’ve never really been able to measure before,” Dr. Varma said. “This is information about people’s biological measurements, being taken by somebody in their home before they’ve actually, in many situations, sought care.”

If officials see an illness beginning to spread through a school, they could marshal a targeted response, Dr. Varma said — perhaps by doing some deep cleaning, temporarily closing a school building or helping students and staff members access care.

And while the rollout focuses on schools, Kinsa says that the system could benefit all New Yorkers. “The reason that we’re targeting elementary schools is because we know parents of elementary-age children are power users of thermometers,” said Nita Nehru, vice president of communications at Kinsa. “In a normal illness season, illness spreads rapidly within schools, and that’s where you want to start gathering data earlier, if you want to be able to stop the spread of illness more broadly.”

The data has limitations. Thermometers, of course, will not catch ailments that are not accompanied by fevers, and many cases of Covid, especially in children, are asymptomatic. Moreover, schools and families that opt into the program may not be representative of the city’s population at large.

And then, of course, there are the inevitable privacy concerns. Kinsa emphasizes that all data provided to the city will be aggregated and anonymized. “None of the individual data is going to anyone other than to that individual,” Mr. Singh said. “They own the data, and we’re really adamant about this.”

For instance, even de-identified data can sometimes be re-identified. “Even if it becomes ‘A fourth-grader at this school in this neighborhood,’ that could narrow it down,” said Hayley Tsukayama, a legislative activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy group. “It doesn’t take a lot of data points to re-identify something.”

The data, aggregated by ZIP code, will also be incorporated into illness signals that Kinsa makes available in its public HealthWeather map. The company sometimes shares this ZIP-code-level information with pharmacies, vaccine distributors and other companies. Clorox, for instance, has used Kinsa’s data to determine where to target its ads. (Lysol will have no special access to the data, Kinsa says.)

Both Kinsa and the city need to be transparent with families about how the data will be used, stored and shared and how long it will be retained, experts said. City officials are “essentially putting their stamp of approval on this,” said Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum. “They need to make sure that they are living up to the trust that parents will have that this program has been fully vetted and is safe for their kids and their families.”

Over the coming months, city officials will keep close tabs on how well the program is working, Dr. Varma said. How do families feel about the program? Is there enough uptake to produce useful data? Can they actually catch outbreaks earlier — and slow the spread of disease?

Article Published At Newyorktimes

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