Smart Thermometer-Based Participatory Surveillance to Discern the Role of Children in Household Viral Transmission During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Jun 1;6(6):e2316190. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.16190.


Importance: Children's role in spreading virus during the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to be elucidated, and measuring household transmission traditionally requires contact tracing.

Objective: To discern children's role in household viral transmission during the pandemic when enveloped viruses were at historic lows and the predominance of viral illnesses were attributed to COVID-19.

Design, setting, and participants: This cohort study of a voluntary US cohort tracked data from participatory surveillance using commercially available thermometers with a companion smartphone app from October 2019 to October 2022. Eligible participants were individuals with temperature measurements in households with multiple members between October 2019 and October 2022 who opted into data sharing.

Main outcomes and measures: Proportion of household transmissions with a pediatric index case and changes in transmissions during school breaks were assessed using app and thermometer data.

Results: A total of 862 577 individuals from 320 073 households with multiple participants (462 000 female [53.6%] and 463 368 adults [53.7%]) were included. The number of febrile episodes forecast new COVID-19 cases. Within-household transmission was inferred in 54 506 (15.4%) febrile episodes and increased from the fourth pandemic period, March to July 2021 (3263 of 32 294 [10.1%]) to the Omicron BA.1/BA.2 wave (16 516 of 94 316 [17.5%]; P < .001). Among 38 787 transmissions in 166 170 households with adults and children, a median (IQR) 70.4% (61.4%-77.6%) had a pediatric index case; proportions fluctuated weekly from 36.9% to 84.6%. A pediatric index case was 0.6 to 0.8 times less frequent during typical school breaks. The winter break decrease was from 68.4% (95% CI, 57.1%-77.8%) to 41.7% (95% CI, 34.3%-49.5%) at the end of 2020 (P < .001). At the beginning of 2022, it dropped from 80.3% (95% CI, 75.1%-84.6%) to 54.5% (95% CI, 51.3%-57.7%) (P < .001). During summer breaks, rates dropped from 81.4% (95% CI, 74.0%-87.1%) to 62.5% (95% CI, 56.3%-68.3%) by August 2021 (P = .02) and from 83.8% (95% CI, 79.2%-87.5) to 62.8% (95% CI, 57.1%-68.1%) by July 2022 (P < .001). These patterns persisted over 2 school years.

Conclusions and relevance: In this cohort study using participatory surveillance to measure within-household transmission at a national scale, we discerned an important role for children in the spread of viral infection within households during the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened when schools were in session, supporting a role for school attendance in COVID-19 spread.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Thermometers
  • Virus Diseases* / epidemiology