Without a COVID-19 vaccine, companies continue turning to temperature scans

Athena Security offers a temperature screening system with infrared cameras that can detect elevated temperatures for 2,000 people an hour when they are scanned in a single file line six feet apart. (Athena Security)

Temperature screening for COVID-19 with infrared thermal cameras, or scanners, is increasingly present in hospitals, airports and office buildings. The technology is no-contact, typically with a thermal camera focused on the inner eye to take a reading.  

A visual or audible alarm usually notifies building staff when somebody entering the facility has a high reading. Follow-up temperature testing often follows, which can result in denial of entry.

Even though the technology is generally deemed reliable in reading temperatures efficiently for busy locations, it doesn’t diagnose the presence of COVID-19 on its own. As a result, some critics worry it could give the general public a false sense of health safety when entering a building.   For small businesses, the technology can be expensive, starting at $20,000 in some cases.

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“Heat detectors are just a tool that may help,” said Leonard Lee, a technology analyst at NeXt Curve.  “There should be a much more holistic surveillance and containment strategy.”

“My biggest concern is the false sense of safety,” Lee added. “That is a big gap. Some people visiting a venue will say, ‘Screw social distancing—these guys are using fever scanners. This venue must be safe.’ That’s wrong. A massive spread event could ensue.”

More than 50 companies are offering thermal imaging screening according to one count from MoviTHERM, a developer in the segment.  “Demand is being driven by every organization’s desire to put something in place to make people feel comfortable as they go back to work,” said MoviTHERM CEO Markus Tarin in May.

RELATED: Crowd temp screening is a joke, one tech expert says

Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth in Houston deployed thermal cameras for quick temperature screening in May and in early August defended its use in screening thousands of visitors a day.

“Temperature and symptom screening are best practices recommended for healthcare settings by national and international guidelines, along with federal, state and local public health and regulatory agencies,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, infectious disease expert at the center, in an email to Fierce Electronics.

“Even if the yield of screen positives is relatively low, it assures no one with fever will come in and expose staff and patients,” he added. “We are a high-reliability organization and we felt that this high-throughput, ubiquitous method was our best solution.”

Ostrosky said he would recommend the temperature screening technology the hospital chose from Athena Security to managers of other facilities where many people arrive every day.  “High throughput temperature screening with this technology is ubiquitous and unobstructive and by far the best solution we tried to comply with this best practice,” he added.

Athena has posted an online report with hospital staff discussing the value of the technology, including its ability to reduce clogs in lines of people at entrances who had previously been required to get temperatures screened one by one with handheld devices, sometimes resulting in contact.

Another Athena customer, Propeller Airports, sees the temperature scanning as a way to help travelers feel more comfortable as they to return to flying. “We are trying to provide the safest environment that we can for our passengers,” said CEO Brett Smith in the same video. “We believe that one of the lines of defense is to see if people have a temperature.”

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has weighed-in on non-contact temperature assessment devices, noting they “have many benefits” if used properly.

However, the FDA warns: “Non-contact temp assessment devices are not effective if used as the only means of detecting a COVID-19 infection.”  More significantly to epidemiologists, the FDA also notes, “An infected person may be contagious without an elevated temperature or other easily detectable symptoms.”

Adults typically have a fever if their body temperature increases to 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) Athena has configured its detection system to a 99.5 degree F alarm threshold, with the ability to scan more than 2,000 people per hour when they are scanned in a single file line six feet apart.

On its website, Athena is clear that the scan showing a high temperature should be confirmed by a second thermometer.  “Athena is best utilized as the first in a two-checkpoint system, where an elevated temperature that could be a fever is then confirmed by a second FDA-approved medical thermometer,” the company says.

Athena also notes, “Elevated human body temperature is not a marker of viral infection and jut a possible symptom where additional medical advice should be sought.”    People arriving from the cold outside or people who may have recently been running could register false readings as well.

“Temperature screening is part of a holistic approach by clients of Athena Security in lieu of a vaccine being widely deployed,” said Athena CEO Lisa Falzone in an email to Fierce Electronics. “Companies are using every valid technique at their disposal to protect the people walking into their buildings.”   The Athena system starts at $19,500, which can increase depending on options.

Even so, concern remains about the general impression created by temperature screening in public venues.  “Temperature screening is not a great tool for establishing control of the pandemic spread,” analyst Lee said.  “If it were, it would be a public health requirement globally."

"By the time these fever sensing systems detect a potential symptomatic carrier, the virus has probably already spread to dozens of people," Lee added.  "These systems can be a distraction from effective measures…Most businesses don’t have the money to spend on expensive systems that don’t help.”

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