Study: Daily fever numbers in NC drop after increased social distancing

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Data collected by a medical tech company suggest a correlation between North Carolina’s restrictions on restaurants and bars, and the percentage of the company’s users in the state reporting fevers – a main symptom of a coronavirus infection.

Kinsa Inc. manufactures thermometers that connect to the internet via a mobile app and upload its user’s body temperature to a database, allowing the company to compile aggregate data on its users in real-time while keeping their personal information anonymous.

It could indicate that some local social distancing efforts might be having a measurable effect.

According to that data, the percentage of its users in Wake County who are running fevers has been declining ever since March 16 – the day before Gov. Roy Cooper announced the closing of seating areas in restaurants and bars.

On that day, 6.2 percent of users reported high temperatures, compared to a historical average of 4.4 percent.

But since then, reports of fever in the county have been lower than expected since March 21, with the number down to 0.9 percent on Thursday, according to the company’s figures.

“The idea that we can collect this digital data to inform estimates of health, or infectious diseases in this case, it’s an interesting application, and I think that it can be very helpful in identifying potential hot spots where there are outbreaks occurring in communities,” said Allison Aiello, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

But there are a few issues with drawing too many broad conclusions from the data, she said.

Other diseases besides COVID-19 cause fevers – the company’s data map originally was created to track seasonal flu – and its base is limited to those who either own the thermometers or manually put their readings into the app.

The company has said its has thermometers in more than 1 million households and records roughly 150,000 temperature readings per day, giving it a large enough sample size to establish some baseline percentages.

As of last month, Kinsa says it saw up to three times its usual volume of users than in previous flu seasons. But it says it prevents any possible skewing of the data by accounting for fluctuations in its statistical modeling system and by comparing its numbers to those collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after each flu season.

The thermometers retail for $35.99 and $69.99 on the company’s website, and Kinsa has given some away as part of school health programs, with Granville County Schools using them last year as part of a study. Assistant superintendent Stan Winborne says the data collected helped school officials track the seasonal flu.

“We could see (a flu outbreak) coming based on that data,” Winborne said. “We were able to intervene and do some extra cleaning in our schools, and I think it really kind of helped slow the tide of those new cases.”

Fever is the first symptom of a coronavirus infection listed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and Walmart and other businesses have begun taking employees’ temperatures as it attempts to keep the virus from its stores and facilities.

Every county in the viewing area showed patterns that were similar – if not identical – to Wake County’s.

The peaks in Durham, Orange, Johnston, Franklin and Nash counties, among others, came on March 16. The spike in Chatham County came on March 17 while one in Cumberland County followed two days after that.

And in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the percentage of people with fevers has dropped during the past week, according to Kinsa’s statewide map.

Officials around the world have taken increasingly severe steps toward slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has caused nearly 7,000 deaths in the U.S. with 19 of those in North Carolina. The state Department of Health and Human Services on Friday reported 2,093 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, after conducting 31,598 tests.

The first case in the state was announced March 3, and Cooper declared a state of emergency a week later with the World Health Organization declaring it a pandemic a day after that. The first COVID-19-related death was announced March 25, and a stay-at home order in Wake County went into effect March 27 with a statewide order following Monday.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for others – especially the elderly and people with existing health problems – it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover in a matter of weeks.

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