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Could Thermal Cameras Help Government Identify Coronavirus?

As Louisiana enters the first phase of its reopening plan and residents venture out in larger numbers, some are considering thermographic cameras as one tool to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

by Katie Gagliano, The Advocate / May 22, 2020
A thermal image of a person coughing. Courtesy Draganfly via YouTube Screenshot

(TNS) — As businesses enter Phase 1 of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reopening plan and residents venture out in larger numbers, some are considering thermographic cameras as one tool to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the technology isn’t foolproof.

Superintendent Irma Trosclair with the Lafayette Parish School System mentioned the use of thermal imaging cameras at high school graduations on May 13. She said the cameras, combined with assigned seating and social distancing, were some measures the Cajundome plans to implement to make in-person graduation ceremonies safe and feasible.

Pam DeVille, Cajundome and Convention Center director, spoke to the Lafayette City Council about the Cajundome’s plans Tuesday, noting the venue is working with Acadian Total Security on installation of thermal cameras at entrances as part of its pandemic protocol. She estimated the cameras would cost $75,000 and is seeking financial assistance to cover the costs as events continue to cancel.

DeVille said the Cajundome needs to reopen or there will be dire financial consequences for the venue. To do that, people need to feel confident attending events.

“If they’re afraid to go in the building because they think the person that sneezes next to them is going to give them COVID, they’re never going to come back,” she said.

Casey White, Cajundome marketing director, said the proposal’s affordability will play a role in whether it’s executable, but said the cameras are an attractive option. She noted other venues in the industry are using or considering the technology and the Cajundome is monitoring those efforts.

While not perfect, the thermal cameras can offer a sense of comfort and security, she said.

“It’s one extra step that makes people feel comfortable coming here for the time being. We want them to be as comfortable as possible coming into this environment, and if this will help achieve that, it’s what we’ll try to do,” she said.

Acadian Total Security is rolling out thermographic imaging services to interested clients across the region to “protect customers and employees from COVID-19.” The technology claims to scan the face of anyone entering the vicinity and detect elevated skin-surface temperatures. If an above-average temperature is found, an alarm notifies the business owner so further screening can be done, Acadian said in a release.

Jason Brown, Acadian Total Security sales and marketing director, said at least 100 different companies have reached out to explore the camera options. Before, Acadian mainly sold related technology to chemical companies who needed to monitor thermal readings in plants or similar facilities.

“It’s a huge spike. We have been absolutely slammed with meetings and I’ve got commercial sales reps flying across the country and meeting with businesses from hospitals, to senior communities, to schools, government, courthouses. Every avenue that you can think of has reached out in one capacity or another,” he said.

Acadian carries lines from three thermal camera manufacturers – FLIR Systems, HikVision and BraveWatch – with prices ranging from roughly $7,000 per camera to $70,000, depending if customers want a tripod arrangement or a more sophisticated mounted camera system, he said.

Acadian markets their cameras as achieving an accuracy within a range of between .5 and .9 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the system. The cameras can scan up to 14 people in about one second, a faster contactless method than having someone scan customers at the door with a handheld thermometer, Brown said.

Some of the cameras are U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved, while others aren’t, though the FDA eased guidelines on the use and marketing of thermographic systems for the duration of the pandemic. However, the FDA did say the cameras should be used to measure only one person at a time, among other qualifications, to be used effectively.

Customers have discretion to set temperature alarm parameters and control how the data is stored, what data is stored and for what duration, Brown said. Most of the camera systems operate independently of an internet connection and should not be capable of outside data transmission, a security measure Brown said he’s assured clients of.

There are some caveats about the use of thermal cameras, especially as protection against spreading COVID-19.

The technology isn’t intended to diagnose illness or prevent the spread of disease. Several thermal camera companies, including FLIR Systems, have released disclaimers that their products aren’t intended to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and can’t be used to find COVID-19 infected individuals.

One reason is that not all novel coronavirus infected patients have a fever. In a study conducted across New York City area hospitals, one of the U.S. cities hit hardest by COVID-19, doctors found that only 30.7% of 5,700 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 had a fever when triaged.

Further, not all novel coronavirus patients exhibit symptoms, but asymptomatic carriers are still able to spread the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total number of asymptomatic carriers is undetermined, but CDC Director Robert Redfield told NPR in March the number could be as high as 25% of COVID-19 infected individuals.

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report Tuesday challenging the use of thermal cameras to track fever and prevent novel coronavirus spread. In the report, the group questioned the cameras’ reported accuracy and raised concerns about the risks to post-pandemic privacy should body temperature surveillance become normalized.

“The bottom line is that nobody should imagine that blanketing our public spaces with thermal sensors is going to serve as any kind of effective automated ‘COVID detection network,’ or that this technology is likely to contribute significantly to stemming the spread of the virus,” the ACLU report said.

Using thermal cameras isn’t flawless, Brown said. But it’s an option that provides businesses some level of oversight and control.

“I’m seeing companies trying their best to keep everyone safe and I applaud the ones that are looking into this and are at least trying to do something to help protect people. It’s not foolproof because there are people who can carry it without a temperature, but it’s a step in the right direction while people try to open their businesses,” Brown said.

It’s also one way to follow reopening guidelines as governments at various levels recommend businesses test employees’ temperatures during reopening, as well as customers’ when possible.

Brown said Acadian is advising all clients to partner the thermal scanners with secondary screening procedures when someone with an elevated temperature is detected, a recommendation echoed by the FDA. The individual should be pulled aside, have their temperature checked with a thermometer or other device and they should be asked standard novel coronavirus screening questions, he said.

Acadian Companies is partnering with interested customers to have EMTs from sister branch Acadian Ambulance on site to perform secondary scans and evaluations. DeVille mentioned they’re looking at the Acadian Ambulance partnership to manage screenings at their events.

Camera users should also continue diligent sanitation and other protective measures, Brown said.

©2020 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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