Using Thermal Infrared Cameras To Identify Coronavirus Symptoms: Solution Or Problem?

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[author: Debbie Shields]

Should we be using new technologies and devices (such as thermal infrared cameras) to detect fevers as the country returns to work? Using these new technologies to detect fevers in people from a distance raises several legal and policy issues.

Fever is one of many symptoms of COVID-19, and the hope is that thermal camera technology will help the public get back to work and life safely. Tracking fevers is one part of a comprehensive environmental health and safety program for many businesses, and may play a critical role in the public health system.

Thermal imaging of the unsuspecting public is becoming part of the new normal for monitoring COVID-19 in grocery stores, other retail sites, airports, healthcare centers, and apartment buildings in high risk areas. An advantage of using infrared cameras is the ability to measure a person’s temperature without contact and individual screening. The application detects individuals with a body temperature higher than the last ten people who have been screened. Individuals with a fever may be denied entry to a store or other business, and further screening may be requested.

This new technology may seem to be a positive development in fighting COVID-19 infections but not all are convinced. While the Food and Drug Administration has allowed thermal cameras as an “unapproved fever detection device,” it also cautions about potential disruptions and inaccurate readings. Factors such as head covers, the environment, and head positioning may affect the temperature reading prompting unwarranted increased screenings. Fever is not a symptom of COVID-19 alone and may be indicative of illnesses besides COVID-19, which also affects accuracy and reliability of screening. Privacy issues are also a concern, as are the high cost of accurate thermal cameras and a false sense of security from the readings.

Monitoring an individual’s temperature is an important part of overall community health during this pandemic since fever is a sign of an infection, including COVID-19. However, companies need to evaluate the use this technology weighing all competing interests and potential liabilities before choosing to employ it in their businesses.

For recent news stories addressing some of these concerns: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/thermal-imaging-cameras-coronavirus; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-symptoms-temperature-check-fever-screening-devices-inaccuracies/.

FDA guidance on Non-Contact Infrared Thermometers is available here: https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/general-hospital-devices-and-supplies/non-contact-infrared-thermometers

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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