Get Ready to Have Your Temperature Taken — a Lot
Last week, I dropped by my recently reopened gym to restart my lapsed membership. As soon as I walked in the door, a woman pointed an infrared thermometer at my forehead.
I was instantly anxious — not because I felt sick or thought I had a fever but because it was about 100 degrees outside, and I worried about what would happen if my face was too hot.
This is a feeling we’d all better get used to: Temperature checks in public spaces may soon become as ubiquitous as bag checks at a stadium or metal detectors in the airport. As the Covid-19 pandemic wears on, hospitals, transportation hubs, malls, grocery stores, office buildings, and other institutions are expected to install fever detection systems and infrared imaging technology meant to monitor body temperatures, then identify — and ostensibly separate — people who may have an infection. Market reports predict a steep incline for thermometer sales: The industry is expected to hit $3.2 billion by 2027. But temperature checks, even if they happen constantly, won’t be enough to stop the contagion. Fever isn’t the only indicator of a Covid-19 infection, which makes the security measure inherently fallible.
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Still, Los Angeles, Dulles, and Tampa international airports plus two Carnival cruise lines and the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority have all begun testing thermal cameras, which are like surveillance cameras that use heat sensors to capture neon-multicolored footage. Higher temperatures show up yellow, orange, and red while cool spots register green, blue, or purple. The U.S. Department of Defense is already using them at military facilities.
Temperature tracking tech can take many forms: At the Venetian and Palazzo casinos in Las Vegas, employees are wearing “smart rings” that track body temperature using a tiny sensor. The rings, produced by a Finnish wearable tech startup called Oura, also contain an infrared LED and a photodiode to monitor heart activity based on the way light pulses through the arteries. NBA athletes playing in a quarantine-style “bubble” in Florida have the option of wearing the rings, too.
As of now, 31 state governments require or recommend that employers conduct daily temperature screenings for all employees returning to work. Meanwhile, big companies like Amazon, General Motors Co., and Tyson Foods Inc. are installing tech to screen their employees’ body temperatures.
Around Houston, Texas, scanners designed by Athena Security are becoming a common sight. They’ve been recently installed at “airports, schools, companies, and even places of worship,” says Chris Ciabarra, Athena’s CTO.
The scanners are shoebox-sized with dual lenses that can be pointed toward a door or down a hallway. To have their temperature taken, passersby just have to glance at the camera.
“These systems are appealing because they are noninvasive, noncontact, and fast,” Ciabarra says. The scanner, which uses an A.I.-based program to constantly adjust itself for accuracy, emits a notification when it detects a temperature above 99.5 degrees. “The system identifies the face of the subject, ignoring hot spots such as lights above and other objects on a person such as a cellphone or coffee. The inner canthus, or corner, of the eye is scanned because it is close to the core temperature of the body.”
But for most small and mid-sized stores and businesses (like my gym), a thermal imaging system is less feasible. Instead, checking temperatures remains a human job that often involves a handheld, no-touch thermometer that collects the infrared energy radiating from the forehead. The method has its flaws.
Ryan Nalepinski, a digital marketer in Phoenix, Arizona, experienced a recent hiccup while trying to enter his local Costco. “I parked and walked like 50 yards from my car to the door of Costco, and the woman pointed a thermometer at me,” he says. “The reading was about 100 degrees, but it was also like 110 outside.” Nalepinski wasn’t worried — he was sure he didn’t have a fever — just inconvenienced. The checker at the door wasn’t all that concerned about it either. “She just told me to come back in five minutes. I had to just walk around and wait for my temperature to cool down.”
Most stores and businesses using no-touch thermometers to check entrants plan to turn people away if they’re hotter than 100.4 degrees, which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say is the benchmark for a fever. That’s the official cutoff temperature to enter Walt Disney World, which reopened in early July with thermometer operators at each gate. And as the tourism industry hesitantly reopens, no-touch thermometers have become a primary tool in places that haven’t had to think about health security before.
They’re being used at Steamboat Bay Fishing Club, a tiny resort on Alaska’s remote Noyes Island. The resort can only be reached via floatplane and boat and accommodates just two dozen guests at full capacity. Its seclusion is a double-edged sword: Low visitor numbers mean less of a chance of exposure, but close quarters mean a single infected person could quickly overwhelm the island resort and its staff. No-touch thermometers are being used to check each guest’s temperature daily.
“It’s being touted as an important line of defense,” says Adam Shoen, the club’s resident manager. If a temperature does come back high, the plan is to get that person to the nearest city, where they can quarantine near medical personnel. Whether it will keep the virus from reaching the secluded island remains to be seen, but, Shoen adds, “I’m sure it does give peace of mind.”
Of course, having a normal body temperature doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have Covid-19, which means a thermometer reading can’t provide the same assurance as a blood or saliva test or a nasal swab. “About 43% of patients have a fever as a symptom,” explains Dixie Harris, a pulmonary medicine specialist and critical care physician at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City. That means more than half of those carrying the virus wouldn’t be stopped by a temperature check. And for those who do develop a fever, “it usually appears within two to 14 days after initial exposure,” Harris says, so it’s not a reliable early indicator.
In fact, a study of 5,700 people with Covid-19 at hospitals in and around New York City found that barely 30% had a fever when they were triaged, and researchers have determined it’s possible to spread the virus long before a fever develops, if it ever does.
Similarly, Harris says, wide-scale temperature screening is probably not enough to halt the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. “It may help identify some of the symptomatic people with Covid-19,” she says, which will of course help reduce transmission.
Efficacy (and momentary anxiety) aside, thermometers are one more weapon for the arsenal in a battle that will continue until there’s a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 and likely beyond. In security tech, temperature surveillance is the next frontier: A post-pandemic world may see grocery stores, airports, and, of course, gyms, tightly restricted to those under 100 — degrees, that is.