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Stick-on body sensors offer new hope against COVID-19

Patch made by Boston company monitors temperatures changes that could indicate onset of infection.

You can’t cure COVID-19 with a Band-Aid. But you might be able to detect it.

Dermal Photonics of Peabody says it has made a new kind of temperature sensor that’s attached to the body like an adhesive bandage, and can quickly detect changes in body heat that may indicate the onset of an infection. Compared to the smart watches and fitness trackers that are now being tested as possible COVID-19 detectors, the patch, called NIRA Temp, is smaller, simpler and a lot cheaper.

Dermal founder David Bean said NIRA Temp is ideal for public schools that might otherwise have to administer hundreds of manual temperature checks on students.

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“You apply it in the morning, and once they’re at school, they can just be regular kids,” Bean said.

Dermal is the second company with Boston connections to market a body patch for COVID detection. VitalConnect, whose devices are used to monitor conditions of seriously ill patients when they’re at home, is marketing the product to institutions and sports leagues to keep tabs of healthy people.

NIRA Temp can transmit temperature data to the school via a parent’s smartphone. That way, the school could decide if a child with a high temperature should remain at home. Bean foresees NIRA Temp being similarly used in factories and office buildings.

The spot temperature checks used at many offices and retail stores only measure temperature at a particular moment. They can be useful in identifying people with high fever, but can miss subtle changes that could indicate the onset of an infection. NIRA Temp is meant to be worn around the clock, even during sleep, so it becomes far easier to see potential infections if the software detects a sudden spike in body heat.

Due to go on sale in August, NIRA Temp joins a host of wearable devices being repurposed as potential COVID-19 trackers. University researchers are testing smart watches such as the Apple Watch and fitness trackers like the Fitbit Versa, which monitor a user’s heart rate and respiration, to see if these gadgets provide early warning of COVID infection.

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But the Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa don’t monitor body temperature, a key indicator of possible infection. Besides, these devices are relatively bulky and expensive — starting at $400 for an Apple Watch, for instance.

By contrast, a NIRA Temp patch costs $50. It’s about the size of a quarter, and is taped under the armpit. It has a Bluetooth radio that transmits temperature data to a smartphone app, and Bean said the battery life runs from one to two years.

Other body sensors being studied for COVID detection include the ADAM or Advanced Acousto-Mechanic device, which attaches to the base of the throat. In addition to tracking temperature, ADAM has a tiny microphone to monitor respiration, since coughing and shortness of breath are early COVID-19 indicators.

“It’s almost like a digital stethoscope,” said John Rogers, the Northwestern University engineering professor who heads the development team.

ADAM is undergoing clinical trials with healthcare providers and later this year will be tested by the Defense Department.

The VitalPatch from San Jose-based VitalConnect, has been on the market for several years, with about 100,000 units shipped. It’s a little larger and a lot fancier than the other stick-on sensors, capable of monitoring multiple vital signs, including heart rate, respiration, temperature, physical activity and even posture, and relaying the data to a hospital or doctor.

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VitalPatch “puts the capabilities of an ICU on your chest,” said the company’s Boston-based chief executive Peter Van Haur.

Designed to let seriously ill people remain at home, hospitals provide VitalPatch to patients at a cost of about $16 a day. Already authorized as a patient-monitoring device by the US Food and Drug Administration, VitalPatch was recently cleared for emergency use in tracking the heart rhythms of people hospitalized for COVID-19 infections.

Van Haur said VitalPatch can also be used by healthy people as a COVID-19 early warning system. The company plans a trial with student volunteers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who will wear the patches when they return to campus this fall.






Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.