Kinsa FLUency Program Helping Schools Monitor for COVID-19

Historically used to keep a lid on flu season, a six-year-old smart thermometer program from the medical technology company Kinsa has been helping thousands of schools monitor students for symptoms of COVID-19.

An open laptop with a smartphone and digital thermometer sitting next to it.
A contributed graphic shows the Kinsa "smart thermometer," as well as the look of Kinsa's data recorded through a mobile app.
Since COVID-19 first hit the U.S. a little over a year ago, research has been somewhat mixed about whether a fever is a reliable metric for determining if someone is infected with the virus. Though many patients can carry the illness with little to no symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website still lists fever among the most common symptoms of the deadly pathogen.

Knowing that thermometers still can play a role in detecting some outbreaks, the health technology company Kinsa is offering “smart” thermometers, which can transmit their readings to a phone app for school districts monitoring the spread of COVID-19. According to the company, the tool has been available through its FLUency program for about six years now and can be found in about 4,000 K-12 schools throughout the country.

Kinsa spokeswoman and FLUency founder Nita Nehru said the main goal of the program was initially to provide parents and school staff with an early detection system for illnesses such as strep throat and influenza through the use of its thermometer, which connects to an app that records and aggregates symptoms reported by users.

Over the past six years since schools started using the thermometer and app, Kinsa has recorded a 27 percent decrease in illness-based school absenteeism during the peak of flu season, according to the company’s website.

Nehru said Kinsa’s platform isn’t an illness-specific diagnostics tool, but the device can help track symptoms that suggest outbreaks of COVID-19. Kinsa can also inform others visiting or living in areas if illnesses are prevalent within the region.

Though we knew little about the virus a year ago, she believes Kinsa could have helped prevent some outbreaks from occurring last year.

“In the case of COVID, we didn’t know what COVID was back then, but we could’ve known, ‘Hey, something really unusual is happening in this area. Let’s go and investigate,’” she said.

Using the Kinsa platform, education and government officials can pinpoint where limited coronavirus tests and treatment resources are most needed, which Nehru said is especially important in communities with limited resources to fight the spread of COVID-19.

In other words, the Kinsa thermometer can serve as another part of a school district or city’s anti-coronavirus toolkit, alongside other tests.

“Let’s say you know there’s a rising number of fevers. Now you know where to be directing those expensive COVID tests,” she said. “Then you’re able to make better decisions that way.”

Aggregated data recorded by Kinsa can also advise parents and school nurses on what to do next when certain symptoms are reported alongside temperature. She said this is crucial when deciding if and when users need to seek urgent care, or whether an illness is more likely the result of the common cold or strep throat, for example.

The city of Little Rock, Ark., recently enrolled in the FLUency program, providing local schools with the thermometer and app at no cost to the districts. Through the program, Little Rock officials distributed more than 1,000 Kinsa devices to school nurses and other staff members in public schools, as well as parents of city district students. 

Jay Barth, the city’s chief education officer, said officials wanted to provide an addition to school COVID-19 testing efforts after depleting federal relief funds last year. While public funds subsidize the program for many school districts, Barth said Little Rock’s schools enrolled with help from cleaning supply company Lysol, which has partnered with Kinsa’s FLUency program to help cities like Little Rock.

Barth added that the thermometer program has proved useful for city schools tracking the potential spread of the virus. He said school nurses and administrators have used the thermometers to regularly test students and staff members, noting that most of the district’s 24,000 students returned to in-person learning this school year.

“The school nurses have seen some real value in this,” he said. “Most fundamentally, it really is bringing a high-quality thermometer into a hall where there might not be a thermometer at all.”

The city plans to order more devices in the months to come, and Barth said the tool will remain useful past the pandemic to help track influenza, which he believes will re-emerge as a problem for schools once people ditch the use of masks. However, as of Tuesday, he said, COVID-19 outbreaks among school-aged children have been on a downturn in Little Rock compared to the beginning of the public health crisis.

“I think by the time we got access to Kinsa, we were past the peak [of COVID-19]. That said, I think there’s going to be a payoff more generally non-COVID,” he said. “Schools are places where, if a handful of folks get an illness, it’s going to spread because of the nature of the institution.”

While it’s difficult to imagine another public health crisis after COVID-19, Nehru said another new pandemic could present new challenges for public schools and local governments, making early detection of illnesses critical in the years to come.

“COVID is likely not the last pandemic we’ll face,” she warned.

Nehru said school districts can now enroll in FLUency through the help of relief funds included in the federal American Rescue Plan, signed into law last month.

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.