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Social distancing may already be working to slow coronavirus spread, smart thermometer data suggest

A map of the 7-day trend in flu-like illnesses provided by Kinsa. Darker blue indicates a larger decrease in flu-like illnesses.Kinsa (custom credit)/Kinsa

The national map is mostly blue, as cool as your forehead feels after the fever relents. And that could be good news for a cooped-up country wondering if social distancing really works.

A company that has more than a million smart thermometers in circulation has posted on the Internet interactive maps summarizing the data it’s been collecting from the devices.

A seven-day trend map provided by the company Kinsa showed nearly the entire country as varying shades of blue as of Monday, meaning there was a decline in flu-like illnesses over the past seven days.

Experts say it’s a sign that social distancing measures recently put in place across the country are working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.


In Massachusetts, where non-essential businesses and schools have been closed and people have been asked to stay at home, the greatest decrease in flu-like illnesses was in Essex County, which saw an 11.8 percent decrease.

The rest of Eastern Massachusetts plus Hampshire County saw decreases of 8.1 to 11.5 percent, the company’s maps say. Hampden County and Franklin counties saw decreases of 6.7 and 7.4 percent, respectively, while Berkshire County saw a small decrease, with only a 3.5 percent drop.

“As social distancing, school closures, and similar measures start to take effect, we expect influenza-like illness levels to drop — if illness levels are dropping, the measures are working,” the company noted on its US Health Weather Map website.

A separate national map posted by the company showed a cumulative view of where atypical, or higher-than-expected, flu-like illnesses have been happening since March 1. A third map offers a daily look at how much flu-like illness the company is detecting throughout the country. It suggested there are some ongoing hotspots, including the region around New York City.

A chart also provided on the website compares the observed levels of flu-like illness in the United States, with what the company says would be expected. It shows the observed levels spiking around the beginning of March and then dropping under what would be expected at the beginning of the fourth week in March. The levels have continued to fall in recent days. By Monday, they were down to almost half of what would be expected.


The company cautioned that it was not directly measuring coronavirus. It said other factors affecting the numbers could be more people checking on their health due to concern about the pandemic and more cold and flu viruses circulating.

“That said, since March 1 we’ve seen a very strong correlation between cumulative atypical illness incidence and positive COVID-19 tests (at the state level) in terms of geographies affected and timing within affected geographies, which suggests that our data provides a useful indication of where COVID-19 may likely be occurring,” the company said on its website.

The company said it recommended interpreting its data as complementary to other data, including coronavirus testing and emergency room admissions numbers.

The company’s thermometers come with an app that allows users to get medical advice and keep track of their health, a spokeswoman said. The app allows the company to collect temperature data, which the company can use to track fevers as they range across the country.

Kinsa has been getting up to 162,000 daily temperature readings since the coronavirus began spreading in the country, the New York Times reported.


Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the Times he thought the Kinsa predictions were based on “very robust technology.”

“I’m very impressed by this,” Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine expert at Vanderbilt University, told the Times. “It looks like a way to prove that social distancing works.”

“But it does shows that it takes the most restrictive measures to make a real difference,” he added.

“People need to know their sacrifices are helping,” Inder Singh, founder of Kinsa, told the Times. “I’ve had friends text or call and say: ‘Inder, this seems overblown. I’m sitting at home by myself, I don’t know anyone who’s sick, why am I doing this?’”

A company spokeswoman noted that the drop in fevers doesn’t mean an immediate drop in cases or hospitalizations. People may wait a few days after they take their temperature before going to get a coronavirus test. And testing numbers are expected to rise as more tests are conducted.

“Due to widespread social distancing, school closures, stay-at-home orders, etc. feverish illness levels are dropping in many regions,” the company said in a note posted last Tuesday. “This does not mean that COVID-19 cases are declining. In fact, we expect to see reported cases continue to surge in the near term, but it may indicate these measures are starting to slow the spread.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declined to comment whenever it is asked about the company, the Times reported.


While the Kinsa maps may offer a small glint of hope, new forecasts for the spread of coronavirus predict that stress on Massachusetts hospitals will peak around April 14, and that by summer the deadly virus will have taken nearly 1,800 lives in the state, the Globe reported Tuesday.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.