Doctor: Don’t go out and buy a pulse oximeter to check for COVID-19


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In a recent CBS News interview, a doctor helping in a New York hospital said he saw COVID-19 patients with low oxygen levels. He believes checking levels at home could provide an early warning for the virus.

“He actually compared it to climbers summiting Mount Everest, where the oxygen level is quite low,” explained Dr. William Cioffi, president of Brown Surgical Associates and chief of surgery at Lifespan.

“We haven’t seen that here in Rhode Island to the extent that he was describing,” he said.

A pulse oximeter is a small device that goes on your finger and measures your pulse and the amount of oxygen dissolved in your blood.

“A normal oxygen level in our body is somewhere at 94, 95, 96 percent,” Cioffi said.

He said those who are unfamiliar with using the device may not know how to read it.

“We use them all the time. Nurses are trained to use them,” Cioffi said. “If you use it correctly, it works, but there’s a lot of little nuances to using it.”

Cioffi went on to explain that if everyone went out and purchased an oximeter, it could cause hundreds of people to flood the emergency room who don’t need to be there.

“I would think that rather everybody go out and buying an oximeter — which they probably couldn’t do, even if they wanted to — but they should pay attention to the symptoms that we’ve been talking about for the last one to two months,” he said.

“Although, it’s true that not everybody presents with the fever,” he added. “People do present with a new sore throat, cough, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, loss of smell, loss of tasting.”

Cioffi believes there’s still a lot that medical professionals don’t understand about COVID-19.

“We meet almost daily within our hospital, those of us that are taking care of our patients, to talk about how different these patients are and the kinds of patients that we’re used to taking care of in intensive care units,” he said.

As of Thursday, 318 Rhode Islanders are in the hospital with COVID-19, according to the R.I. Department of Health. Of those, 82 are in the ICU and 56 are on ventilators.

“I just don’t see how this is going to prevent us from eventually having to put someone on ventilator who’s going to need it,” Cioffi said. “I do think it’s something we monitor and we treat people with oxygen and various amounts of support, and obviously, some of those patients need to be put on a ventilator.”

Cioffi urged people to listen to the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and R.I. Department of Health and if you’re experiencing symptoms, call your primary care physician.

“They would be able to go in and get tested and get seen and we’ll see whether or not they have COVID,” he said.

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