How a small piece of technology can give advance warning of COVID-19

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Doctors are discovering details about how COVID-19 kills. They say a simple piece of technology may give people advance warning about when they have the virus.

New York City’s hospitals have been inundated with COVID-19 patients. It’s there that doctors discovered more about how the virus kills by creating a low-oxygen condition.

“This disease kills by silent hypoxia,” said emergency room physician Dr. Richard Levitan. “Patients should understand that shortness of breath is a late sign.”

Levitan said patients felt fine before being hospitalized for shortness of breath because their bodies didn’t realize their oxygen was being cut off.

“With this disease, people’s brains are working fine,” Levitan said. “Their oxygen levels have gone down to scary low levels, but it has happened slowly enough that their body has accommodated it.”

A small device called a pulse oximeter can give a warning sign.

“You just turn it on, and put it on your finger in it, and within about 10 seconds or so, it displays your heart rate and your oxygen level,” Levitan said.

The device can cost anywhere from $16 to $300. Finding them at stores has become problematic because lots of people are buying them. They can also be ordered from a medical supply house, but it’ll take longer that way.

“For the next 12 to 24 months, the public should think of an oximeter the way they do a thermometer,” Levitan said. “It is a tool that they can have at their home that they can check. And that they can call up their doctor and say, ‘Hey, my pulse oximeter is reading consistently at this number. Is that something I need to be concerned about?’”

There are also smartphone versions of the device available. One available on Android devices gave results in about 30 to 35 seconds. Levitan said he’s never used the apps before and can’t comment on their accuracy.

Levitan recently spent 10 days volunteering in NYC hospitals. He said doctors there have learned early treatments result in the best outcomes. He also said people with shortness of breath shouldn’t be frightened to go to the emergency room before they get to the point of shortness of breath.

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