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This £20 gadget could save lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic

“One of the mysteries of COVID-19 is why oxygen levels in the blood can drop to dangerously low levels without the patient noticing,” writes the BBC. This mystery in question is called ‘silent hypoxia’. Because it happens so quickly and without patients noticing, it leads many COVID-infected to arrive in hospital in far worse health than they realised and, in some cases, too late to treat effectively.

Now, a potentially life-saving solution, in the form of a pulse oximeter, allows patients to monitor their oxygen levels at home and costs about £20. The devices are currently being rolled out for high-risk COVID patients in the UK, and Doctor Matt Inada-Kim, who is now leading the scheme, thinks everyone should consider buying one.

What does a pulse oximeter do?

A typical oxygen level in the blood is between 95 per cent and 100 per cent. As Doctor Inada-Kim told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Health, during the pandemic, hospitals started seeing more and more patients with oxygen levels in the 70s and low or middle 80s. “It was a really curious and scary presentation and really made us rethink what we were doing,” he added.

Shortly after that, Doctor Inada-Kim became the national clinical lead of the Covid Oximetry @home project, which involves the remote monitoring of patients with coronavirus symptoms. Patients use a pulse oximeter, a small monitor clipped to their finger, to measure their oxygen saturation levels three times a day in order to stay up to date with the oxygen level in their blood.

A pulse oximeter slips over your middle finger and shines a light into the body to measure how much of the light is absorbed in order to calculate oxygen levels in the blood. In England, they are being given to people with COVID who are over 65, younger but have a health problem, or anyone doctors are concerned about. Similar schemes are being rolled out across the UK, and overall, NHS England has supplied around 300,000 pulse oximeters for the home-monitoring scheme.

As mentioned previously, people need to measure and record their oxygen levels three times a day. If oxygen levels drop to 93 per cent or 94 per cent, then people need to speak to their GP straight away or call 111. If they go below 92 per cent, people should go to A&E or call 999 for an ambulance.

Studies, which have not been reviewed by other scientists, have shown that even small drops below 95 per cent are linked to an increased risk of dying. Doctor Inada-Kim explained, “The point of this whole strategy is to try to get in early to prevent people from getting that sick, by admitting patients at a more salvageable point in their illness.”

Is it really life-saving?

Although Doctor Inada-Kim says there isn’t definitive proof that the gadget saves lives (as it could take until April to know for sure), the early signs are all positive. “What we think we can see are the early seeds of a reduction in the length of stay after a hospital admission, an improvement in survival and a reduction in the pressures on the emergency services,” he told the BBC.

He went to advise everyone to consider buying one, adding that “personally I would, and I know a number of colleagues who have bought pulse oximeters to distribute to their loved ones.”

If you’ve been convinced and are looking to get your own pulse oximeter (which you can easily find on Amazon, for example), Doctor Inada-Kim advised checking your new purchase as a CE Kitemark and to avoid apps on smartphones, which he said were not as reliable.

1 in 5 COVID-19 patients are diagnosed with a mental illness within 3 months

Soon after the coronavirus pandemic started, we saw a sharp increase in reports linking survivors of COVID-19 with the development of mental health problems. But until now, nothing had fully proved how bad the situation was. Finally, we have some numbers to back those claims.

A new study published in The Lancet Psychiatry has found that almost one in five people who have had COVID-19 have also later on been diagnosed with a mental illness within three months of testing positive. How were these calculations made and what does it mean for the double-edged sword that is coronavirus?

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For months now, we have been warned of an oncoming ‘tsunami of mental health problems’ due to the pandemic. Professor Til Wykes, Vice Dean for Psychology and Systems Sciences at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, who was not involved in this research, told the MIT Technology Review that “We know from previous pandemics that mental health difficulties usually follow in survivors, and this study shows the same pattern after COVID-19, so it is not unexpected.”

To calculate the exact consequences of testing positive for coronavirus and coming out of it alive, researchers from Oxford University and NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre gathered the electronic health records of 70 million patients in the US, including 62,354 who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 from 20 January to 1 April 2020, but did not need to be hospitalised.

They found that 18 per cent of patients were diagnosed with a mental health issue in the 14 to 90 days after a diagnosis. Then, to differentiate how COVID-19 patients reacted compared to those suffering from other diseases, the team of researchers compared data with six other conditions (including flu and fractures) over the same time period.

Data showed that the likelihood of a COVID-19 patient being diagnosed with a mental health issue for the first time was twice that of those with other conditions. Anxiety disorders, insomnia, and dementia were the most common diagnoses.

On top of that, people with a pre-existing mental health condition—in particular, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia—were 65 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19.

Vaccines coming shortly or not, this study highlights how urgent the need for more mental health support is as more well-being problems appear across society in the coming months and even years. This collective trauma we’re going through will not heal itself without the necessary support. The loss of control over some major aspects of our lives and the lack of a clear endpoint to the situation led many of us to spiral into a diagnosable mental health problem, without even being diagnosed with coronavirus.

Obviously, we’re not all going through the same thing and coping during the COVID-19 pandemic can mean different things to different people. For example, healthcare workers as well as coronavirus patients are at an increased risk of such issues. The stress they have been under (and still are) could take months to be processed, which means we won’t know the pandemic’s full impact for a while.

Until then, putting a support system in place becomes our only hope at overcoming what has been one of the hardest years of the century.