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Around the clock monitoring – not by doctors and nurses – but sensors. No visit required. Local researchers are bringing engineering precision to the frontlines and the data may help bring a better understanding of COVID-19.

The technology is already in use in the neonatal intensive care unit to monitor critically ill babies. Flexible, gel sensors adhere to the skin and detect critical health information. In stroke patients, the sensors monitor speech and swallowing.

Dr John Rogers is a researcher with Northwestern Medicine and explained his invention.

“Turns out we can also capture signs of respiration and cough,” he said. “And we’re close enough to the carotid artery that we can pick up mechanical signatures of pulse and blood flow. So we can get heart rate and temp there. “

Three weeks ago, doctors at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab asked Rogers to modify his design so they could use the sensor on recovering COVID-19 patients.

“Sometimes patients don’t realize that they are coughing or how frequently they are coughing, or day or night,” he said. “Is it a dry cough or a wet cough? So this is a very important physiological parameter that has never been measured in any kind of systematic way.”

Think of the tiny gel patches as highly sensitive motion sensors that pick up vibrations of the skin not sounds.

“It’s mounted at the super sternal notch so the actual sensor is the tip end of the device and that’s what’s measuring the mechanical vibrations,” Rogers said.

At the end of the day, the sensor is removed and placed on a charging station. That’s when the data is wirelessly transmitted, ultimately to the physician, who can view the patient’s course of illness.

“Beyond just counting coughs to assessing whether a cough is a dry cough or a wet cough, a patient is swallowing after they are coughing, what’s the body orientation when they are coughing – some of the more subtle features to a cough and maybe specific features that relate to COVID-19 itself that is kind of where we are going,” Rogers said.

The sensors can be worn in the hospital and at home after discharge to make sure the patient continues to improve.

“We’re tracking the symptoms to make sure they are not deteriorating and if they are bring them back to the hospital,” Rogers said.

There are 25 sensors in circulation right now, some worn by frontline healthcare workers to monitor for early signs and symptoms. Others on patients receiving experimental therapies.

“You can also measure how effective different therapies are in treating a symptom like cough,” Rogers said. “And you can quantitate that because you have all these different therapies being tested on an experimental basis. It would be nice to have a quantitative foundation of data on efficacy and this could help in that context.”

The goal is not just to collect data, but to learn about the nuances of COVID-19.

“I think the reality is there is still a lot of unknowns about how this disease develops and so an additional value here is the data streams themselves may provide insights into how patients recover, what is the cadence of that, where are scenarios that develop, where a patient suddenly deteriorates, what precedes that and what is the meaning of all that?” Rogers said.

Rogers says 25 more sensors will be distributed in the coming weeks. The technology is made in-house right now and is easily sterilized.