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This tool for COVID-19 patients can detect if they need to go to the hospital

Pulse oximeters are flying off store shelves but not everyone should be buying them, doctors said.

AUSTIN, Texas — There’s a warning tool you’ve maybe never heard of that could save your life if you’re battling the coronavirus.

The City of Austin will start giving out 1,000 pulse oximeters to COVID-19 patients at high risk, but doctors said not everyone should rush to buy one right now.

A pulse oximeter, about the size of a box of Tic Tacs, goes on your finger, toe or ear. It measures your pulse.

A light inside the clip shines through your skin and detects how much oxygen is in your red blood cells. Brighter red blood has more oxygen and blood with less oxygen will appear darker, according to the World Health Organization.

It’s a painless process, but having a low blood-oxygen level is dangerous, doctors said.

“If your pulse [oxygen] drops below 90%, you should contact your doctor or health care provider right away. If it drops below 85%, then it's time to go to the hospital and you should contact 911,” said Dr. Jason Pickett, deputy medical director for the Austin-Travis County.

Doctors stressed that oximeters do not diagnose COVID-19 and not everyone needs one.

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“There's no need to use up all the oximeters on people who are feeling fine right now. Those need to be used by people who have been diagnosed with COVID, for they have other problems that cause them to have low oxygen,” said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

COVID-19 patients might not be able to tell when their oxygen level is dropping and doctors still don’t know exactly why that might be the case, but that’s why the oximeter is helpful for them.

“Oxygenation is important because it's how all your organs and your brain and all that stay alive,” said Cindy Zolnierek, CEO of the Texas Nurses Association. “The person may or may not show symptoms if they don't have a good oxygenation, so the pulse oximeter can pick up and tell you, ‘This person's short of breath.’”

On Friday, the City of Austin announced it purchased 1,000 oximeters using CARES Act dollars. They will be distributed to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 at a high risk of complications, including seniors, people who have chronic diseases, or people who have limited access to healthcare.

RELATED: Where to get a COVID-19 test in the Austin area

CommUnityCare will hand them out and the City will distribute them to vulnerable patients at the Isolation Facility, a City-leased hotel where people who have the virus can stay while recovering.

An oximeter can serve as an early warning so patients don’t delay going to the hospital when it’s absolutely necessary.

“Some people just don't realize that they are low in oxygen,” Fite said. “They don't feel that same shortness of breath that other people do.”

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