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Will the Oura ring help the NBA maintain the Orlando “bubble”?

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The Oura ring is one of many personal activity monitors on the market that may help predict symptoms of illness. But what about COVID-19?

Fitbit And PH5 Host Harley Pasternak Workout Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Fitbit

The NBA has announced that its players will have the option to wear the Oura Ring fitness monitor when the season resumes in Orlando next month. The Oura wearable tech has been marketed as “capable of predicting COVID-19 symptoms up to 3 days in advance (90% accuracy).”

Whoa, that seems like a pretty cool feature, right?! To quote the inimitable Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend!

If we take a deeper look the definition of COVID-19 “symptoms” is squishy enough it becomes nearly meaningless. Like any fitness tracker, the Oura tracks a range of biometrics (e.g. pulse rate, movement, temperature, etc.) and the company’s software then analyzes that data to develop algorithms to identify when a person is at greater risk for illness.

As at least one doctor has pointed out, these algorithms might be able to predict an increased risk for illness, in general, but not necessarily for COVID-19 specifically:

Sovndal said fitness trackers measure health metrics like heart rate, temperature and respiratory rate. A change in the numbers could indicate stress on the body. Sovndal said eventually, researchers might be able to figure out precise patterns in these health metrics that point strictly at COVID-19 but believes the science is not yet there.

“Do you have the cold? The flu? Did you get into a fight with your wife? Did you not sleep well last night? Are you stressed about work? All those things can contribute to those numbers changing,” said Sondval.

In other words, the Oura ring may be able to predict when a person is at higher risk for getting sick, but the ensuing illness could be anything from a common cold to COVID-19 to the flu.

What utility does the Oura ring have?

As intimated above, the Oura ring is one of several personal activity monitors on the market. It’s very similar in function, if not form, to the more ubiquitous FitBit and Garmin devices. Researchers are largely split on how accurate the measurements collected by these devices are, but there are a number of completed and ongoing studies examining their possible utilities. If nothing else, NBA players wearing Oura rings will hopefully help that research progress.

With that said, experts have urged the NBA not to let the rings create a false sense of security:

Long says the potential to study large groups of people to see if there is useful data that can be collected is interesting.

“But it does not replace any of the other things we should be doing, and the other steps that the NBA should be doing in terms of protecting their players, protecting their staff,” Long said. They should still be doing pools of testing and regular testing — all of those other things.”

“Just don’t let it give us a false sense of security. Don’t stop wearing your mask because your Oura ring says you’re OK. You know, don’t skip testing because everybody’s Oura ring says they’re fine.”

Potential drawbacks

As with nearly any form of technology, privacy breaches have plagued the burgeoning health and fitness device market. In the case of the NBA and its players, this is not a new issue, but the players may need to reconsider the amount of access teams have to their data if these types of league-issued trackers become de rigeur.

Additionally, the photoplethysmography method used by the Oura and most other trackers to monitor heart rate may be more inaccurate for people of color than for those with lighter skin tones. This raises a number of scientific and ethical questions, which could be a major concern for the NBA, a league made up of predominantly black players.