In the News

Mass Device – Is coronavirus causing a run on pulse oximeters?

By Sean Whooley May 12, 2020

Republished from Mass Device

Multiple reports cited pulse oximeters as a device of interest as stores are selling out of the products amid claims of capabilities in detecting COVID-19 at home.

Pulse oximeters can measure the saturation of oxygen in red blood cells by shining a light through the skin when clipped to the user’s body. They can be used at home for people with underlying health conditions and are sold online and in pharmacies and other common marketplaces.

The realization that pulse oximeters might be helpful in detecting oxygenation problems and elevated heart rates, significant signs of COVID-19, is leading to a free-for-all for the devices.

In a New York Times column, Dr. Richard Levitan, an emergency medicine physician in Franklin, New Hampshire, cited pulse oximeters as a potential way to identify more patients with COVID-19, making it possible treat them sooner and more effectively.

Levitan said the devices helped save the lives of two emergency physicians he knows, alerting them to the need for treatment at an early stage. He noted that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently recovered from COVID-19, underwent early treatment and close monitoring after detection of hypoxia (COVID-19-associated oxygen deprivation).

A CNN report noted that, as recently as last week, CVS and Walgreens were sold out of pulse oximeters on their respective websites. U.S. sales of the devices continue to grow, according to a report by Quartz, and Levitan’s column brought Google searches for the device to a peak number last week.

Plymouth, Minn.-based Nonin Medical, which invented the fingertip pulse oximeter over 20 years ago, told the Star Tribune that its buyers are now attempting to buy 10 times more than usual and the company can’t keep up with the demand.

Levitan wrote that all patients who have already tested positive for COVID-19 should have pulse oximetry monitoring for two weeks, while anyone with a cough, fatigue and/or fevers should also be monitored, even if they haven’t had swab testing or the test was negative.

“Widespread pulse oximetry screening for COVID pneumonia — whether people check themselves on home devices or go to clinics or doctors’ offices — could provide an early warning system for the kinds of breathing problems associated with COVID pneumonia,” Levitan wrote.

It remains to be seen if manufacturers like Nonin can keep up if Levitan’s suggestions are followed and the demand for these devices continues to increase.