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The Apple Watch as a Pandemic Peripheral

Communicating with my beloved wife when she is away from the house has become a bit trickier because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can’t blame her.

COVID-19 has made navigating the outside world stickier and ickier because of the worry about touching potentially contaminated surfaces and a resulting desire to disinfect continually as protection from the coronavirus.

Keeping your hands clean is chore enough, but you also need to worry about your iPhone. “If a mobile phone isn’t exactly an extension of the human hand, it should be treated like one during COVID-19,” Hartford HealthCare recently said, in advice I’ve seen echoed repeatedly online. “Your phone, like your hand, is a bacteria and virus magnet.”

To be fair, the US Centers for Disease Control no longer considers surface transmission to be a primary vector of infection, saying:

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.

WebMD also has an article from 3 September 2020 discussing the low likelihood of surface transmission. Nevertheless, the CDC still recommends daily disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, including phones, and for electronics refers users to the manufacturer’s instructions. With regard to the iPhone, Apple says:

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your iPhone. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and don’t submerge your iPhone in any cleaning agents.

Unsurprisingly, when she’s doing errands, my wife has become reluctant to dig her iPhone out of her handbag to check text messages or answer a call. This makes her irritatingly but understandably difficult to reach.

It recently dawned on me that the Apple Watch may be the solution. My wife has never used or expressed any interest in using one. But if I persuaded her to do so, I reasoned, I would have a better shot at getting in touch with her while she was out and about. All she’d have to do is tap the watch screen with her pinkie when I texted, called, or started a Walkie-Talkie conversation with her.

Hardware hygiene would be easier, too. A quick swipe with a disinfectant wipe would do it. Apple’s advice for disinfecting an Apple Watch is similar to that for the iPhone:

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your Apple Watch, Sport Band, or metal band. Don’t use on fabric or leather bands. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and don’t submerge your Apple Watch in any cleaning agents.

Coronavirus-Fighting Features

This got me thinking about how the Apple Watch can be a helpful—even essential—piece of personal technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some ways, this is obvious. For instance, the Apple Watch now nags you about washing your hands, a highly recommended way to protect yourself from viruses (see “watchOS 7 Introduces Sleep Tracking, Handwashing Detection, and More,” 22 June 2020). The Handwashing Timer feature prompts you to scrub for the recommended 20 seconds. A companion capability called Handwashing Reminders nudges you to wash your hands after you get home. Enable them in the Watch app, in My Watch > Handwashing.

Handwashing reminders

I really need the Handwashing Timer since I am otherwise prone to wash for only five seconds or so, as my stopwatch-wielding wife has informed me. The feature needs work, though. As my household’s designated dishwasher (a duty I adore since it’s my tech-podcast listening time), I’m irritated at how the timer keeps kicking in as I wash up from dinner.

Handwashing Reminders also is helpful. More than six months into the pandemic, I still forget to wash my hands upon getting home some of the time, so I definitely appreciate the nudge. But it too isn’t perfect—if I’ve merely been out for a walk around the neighborhood, there’s no real need to wash, not that a few extra washes are a problem.

Apple Watch O2 readingBlood oxygen tracking in the Apple Watch Series 6 could be another boon for pandemic-perturbed users (see “Apple Unveils Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE,” 15 September 2020). I’ve been told repeatedly to invest in a basic fingertip pulse oximeter since blood-oxygen monitoring is a way to monitor for the possible onset of COVID-19, but procrastination is one of my superpowers. How awesome is it that I now have that capability on my wrist?

But we should reserve judgment on this capability for the moment. Apple doesn’t market the Apple Watch as a medical device, and rigorous studies of how its blood-oxygen monitoring compares to medical-grade gadgetry are scarce. A Washington Post reviewer recently said he is not impressed by the feature, and the IEEE Spectrum site urges caution for now.

Other Useful Features During a Pandemic

Time-tested Apple Watch features have potential utility in these confusing times as well. If your goal is to reduce the need to touch surfaces in public—notably credit card payment terminals, along with your iPhone—the Apple Watch has much to offer. Casual users are often unaware of these features, as I’ve come to learn after numerous conversations with such people.

Tap-to-pay with Apple Pay is an important one. It involves using your iPhone or your Apple Watch to make purchases at brick-and-mortar establishments simply by bringing the device into close proximity with an NFC-enabled payment terminal. The payment tech has particular resonance during a pandemic since you typically touch nothing (including your iPhone if you have set up your watch for Apple Pay) during such a transaction.

Apple has done a good job of popularizing Apple Pay, but barriers to greater adoption remain. Some people worry that it is less secure than paying with a card, which is entirely incorrect—Apple Pay is far more secure. To this day, I cannot get my wife to consider it. Apple might want to promote the security and zero-touch nature of Apple Pay in a pandemic context.

Also, Apple Pay can be a pain to set up, and Apple doesn’t score any points by having iPadOS nag you to set it up even on an iPad you’ll never take out of the house. (You can use it for some in-app and online payments, which is why Apple does this.) Setting up Apple Pay with my credit union was a nightmare, but I’ve heard that the process is getting easier. Your experience will likely vary depending on which financial institution you use—the larger the bank, the more likely they’ve eliminated unnecessary signup hurdles.

Because of the pandemic, I have taken a closer look at other Apple Watch features lately. Although I’m far more iPhone-focused than my wife, I’ve found numerous ways where I’ve migrated my on-the-go usage patterns over to the watch, including:

  • Responding to texts and other messages: Before the pandemic, I rarely replied to incoming messages on my watch using an emoji or a quick text reply via voice dictation, and now I’m amazed I neglected these features.
  • Answering voice calls: There’s a cool Dick Tracy vibe to this capability, but I have worried about seeming rude to those around me, so I’ve generally abstained. I still worry about that, but the pandemic is prompting me to use the feature in brief spurts.
  • Managing tasks: I’m a recent convert to the Reminders app. I invariably interact with it through Siri on my Apple Watch.
    Google Keep on the Apple Watch
  • Managing notes: I noted a while back how my preferred notes app Google Keep had gained Apple Watch support (see “Google Keep Now Supports the Apple Watch, Apple’s Notes Still AWOL,” 18 April 2019), and I’m using this feature a lot more because of the pandemic.
  • Queuing up podcasts: Podcast management on the Apple Watch is another feature I’ve written about (see “Overcast and Apple’s Podcasts Make the Apple Watch a Decent Podcast Player,” 15 October 2018). I haven’t used it as much as I’d like because Overcast, my preferred podcatcher, hasn’t quite nailed its Apple Watch support. But, because of the pandemic, I’m making more of an effort.
    Overcast on the Apple Watch
  • Ordering pizza for curbside pickup: My family tends to order the exact same Domino’s pie every time, so the pizza chain’s Apple Watch app comes in handy. It’s basically just a button that triggers my standard pickup order. Nice!

Speaking of My Wife

My theory that my wife would be more available when away from the house if she wore an Apple Watch is just that, a theory. To test it, I’ve taken delivery of a 40mm Apple Watch SE for her.

I honestly have no idea how this will go. My wife is far from a tech power user, tending more towards the Luddite end of the spectrum. While she’s fond of her iPhone, she takes advantage of only a tiny fraction of its capabilities, and she likes it that way. She has only one third-party app on it, Google Photos, which I installed so it would automatically upload her photos for safekeeping.

She does seem abstractly interested in the Apple Watch’s communication capabilities, but she also seems averse to having something other than a loose bracelet on her wrist, and she has not used a traditional watch in a decade. Still, she is being a good sport about participating in my little experiment. We all need amusements during these dark and confusing days, and this is apparently one of them for her.

I’ll provide updates in the comments below about how our family Apple Watch adventure unfolds.

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Comments About The Apple Watch as a Pandemic Peripheral

Notable Replies

  1. I have exclusively switched to using my Apple Watch for tap-to-pay since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Prior to this, I didn’t even have it set up on my watch, and used my iPhone exclusively for this. But mask-wearing and a long passcode makes using the iPhone for tap-to-pay annoying, and it’s so much simpler on the watch.

    I really don’t think that I have used my watch for much else that I wouldn’t have otherwise since the pandemic started though. I have answered a call or two, but I don’t make or receive many calls anyway. I have always used my watch for notification triage, and occasionally use the watch to reply for easier one-tap replies (OK, Thanks, No, Yes, etc.), but I really always did this.

  2. I’ve been told repeatedly to invest in a basic fingertip pulse oximeter since blood-oxygen monitoring is a way to monitor for the possible onset of COVID-19, but procrastination is one of my superpowers. How awesome is it that I now have that capability on my wrist?

    Just a note that fingertip pulse oximeters are quite inexpensive. In Australia, they are about $40–$100. Also can be shared between multiple family members. Some run on AAA batteries. I don’t know if they are a real plus in a watch for COVID-19 reasons. Might be useful for sports-related calculations.

  3. Not just your phone or watch, but the mouse/track pad, keyboard and screen. Heck, I never realized the amount of “spray” from talking at my screen till when I had to shutdown and light angle shown spatter marks. (you know like when you yawn and your tongue acts like an orange peel). Also, some folks still drink/eat near their systems and carbonated beverages can leave spray on screens, along with gross amount of food stuff on/in keyboards.

    I use and recommend ChemWipes (91% alcohol pads), SpraywWay (non-ammonia) foaming glass cleaner (under $3/can), and sanitizer wipes on non-electronic parts. When I visit clients or others, and have to work on their systems (even before Covid), I would first clean up their setup-white keyboards get dirty fast-and their mice. I have some microfiber cloths with me, and will also clean portable screens that when I am done, look like new. Just don’t use fragranted or glass-cleaners that have ammonia. Or bring your own K/M as I have seen those Apple BT keyboards not allow for some startup commands that a USB Apple Keyboard will easily allow.

  4. While my apple watch has been pretty helpful in keeping my phone in my pocket and not in my hands when out and about, the most useful device to me has been the AirPods Pro. Say what you will about the quality of Siri, as a tool to listen to/respond to texts and phone calls completely hands free I don’t see a better option.

  5. I, too, have found the hand washing alert kicking in when I’m washing the dishes but found a simple workaround: before I start washing, I swipe up on the Apple Watch and turn on Theater Mode, which seems to disable the hand washing alert when active. When I finish washing, I swipe up again and deactivate the mode.

  6. Like you, I don’t use my 5-year old Watch much; mainly for hands free use of my iPhone. However, I’m going to have to throw the watch in the trash because the screen decided it no longer wants to be attached to the watch. I was able to do a temporary fix by tacking it with superglue but it only lasted for about 5 wearings. So I’m going to have to see if I want to buy another extremely fragile $$$.$$ watch or maybe see if I can find a cheaper non-Apple wrist wearable that will work with my iPhone 10. I can’t really afford to buy $$$.$$ watches every couple of years due to non-repairability.

  7. At one time the detaching screen was a free repair for some models. You might want to check with an Apple Store to see if it applies for you.

  8. Ken

    For diagnosis of possible COVID-19 coughing, fever, fatigue and shortness of breath are much better predictors and easier to obtain. Then someone should be tested.

  9. Near as I could find out, it isn’t. Besides, all the Apple Stores are closed so even if my original Watch had been covered, there would not be anywhere to take it. I should never have replaced my Helium BT wrist phone with the watch, I guess, but I wanted to only wear one item on my wrist rather then the Helium and my Seiko watch.

  10. Tonya a Luddite? Does she actively go around smashing your computers?? :slight_smile:

    Thanks for the tips on the NYS app. I installed the Google version on my Android phone, it is just as you describe.

  11. I once got my iPhone 4 submerged in sea water. When I retrieved it I ran up to the house and poured isopropanol into all openings to replace the seawater. This iPhone is now still working and delivering music to our modest Hi-Fi at the same summer house where it once was submerged in sea water. I am not afraid of using hand sanitizer on my new iPhone. I am from Norway so I think you will have problem suing me if you follow my advice and things go wrong. So anyway, follow Apples advice, not mine.

  12. I have trouble getting the hand washing timer to start, works maybe 50% of the time. The reminder to wash my hands is useful. I have an Apple Watch 4, I am considering the 6 if the oxygen monitor is useful. I can buy a finger oximeter but the problem with it is that it isn’t automatic. A watch automatically checking my levels is much more useful.

  13. I’m noticing the same problem. I sometimes have trouble getting the timer to kick in. Other times, as noted in my article, it kicks in when it shouldn’t. It is all over the place.

  14. It only seems like I write everything in TidBITS. :-) Julio Ojeda-Zapata wrote this piece.

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