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New Zealand pilots AI-based app for border workers to detect COVID-19

New Zealand border workers have begun trailing a monitoring app, called elarm, that uses smartwatch data and is designed to detect the COVID-19 virus before the user develops any noticeable symptoms. New Zealand government is the first in the world to launch a pilot with the technology.

Elarm connects to wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smartwatches and uses artificial intelligence (AI) to check variables such as heart rate and temperature for symptoms of COVID-19, a report has explained. Up to 500 border workers can voluntarily participate in the month-long pilot, which will run until early May. After installing the app on a smart device, they will receive regular notifications and alerts during the day and can view their own health information on the app.

The developer, New Zealand-based start-up Datamine, claims it can detect the virus with 83% accuracy up to three days before the appearance of symptoms such as coughing, breathing difficulties, and fatigue. The technology uses AI to establish a health baseline for each user, then alerts them if there are physiological changes consistent with COVID-19, all data used by the app is private to the individual participants.

The health department said it could provide a vital early warning for workers at the border who face the most risk of exposure to the virus. New Zealand has practically eliminated community spread within the country, making frontline staff who interact with travellers more vulnerable than the rest of the population, another report said. Datamine will provide wearable devices for any of the border workers taking part who do not already have a wearable device. Fitbit will also provide a number of devices to border control workers in Auckland.

“If the elarm app lives up to its potential, it might provide early notification to our critical border workforce if they’re becoming unwell,” Deputy Health Director Shayne Hunter said.  “That means they can take appropriate action such as self-isolating and be tested for COVID-19.” He also explained that contact tracing is at the heart of the government’s COVID-19 response, and it is essential that the government finds and treats people who might have been exposed to the virus before it has a chance to reach other communities. The country has already deployed tools such as the NZ COVID Tracer app and QR code posters, and the Ministry of Health is investigating other technologies that might provide further support for contact tracing.

New Zealand has been largely successful in containing the virus, with just 26 deaths in a population of 5 million. The few community cases that have occurred have generally been linked to border workers who were exposed to the virus via incoming travellers undergoing quarantine. “Even though our border workers are vaccinated, the reality is that some people will still feel unsure about the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 from working on the border,” Hunter noted.

The country’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, wants all border workers to get vaccinated by the end of April, especially after two cases were linked this month to an unvaccinated border worker. Even after that, the Ministry of Health sees elarm as “another layer of protection” against new variants and the fact that vaccines are not 100% effective, according to Datamine CEO Paul O’Connor.

There is other research being undertaken of similar technology supporting the use of wearable devices to detect COVID-19 and other transmissible diseases. This includes studies by Stanford University, Scripps Institute, and UCSF.

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