The University of Idaho is one of hundreds of colleges and universities that adopted fever scanners, symptom checkers, wearable heart-rate monitors and other new Covid-screening technologies this school year. Such tools often cost less than a more validated health intervention: frequent virus testing of all students. They also help colleges showcase their pandemic safety efforts.
But so far the fever scanners, which look like airport metal detectors and detect skin temperature, have flagged fewer than 10 people out of the 9,000 students living on or near campus, Natasha Singer and Kellen Browning report for The New York Times. Even then, university administrators could not say whether the technology had been effective because they have not tracked those students to see if they went on to get tested for the virus.
One problem is that temperature scanners and symptom-checking apps cannot catch the estimated 40 percent of people with the coronavirus who do not have symptoms but are still infectious. Temperature scanners can also be wildly inaccurate.
Administrators at Idaho and other universities said their schools were using the new tech, along with policies like social distancing, as part of larger campus efforts to hinder the virus. Some said it was important for their schools to deploy the screening tools even if they were only moderately useful. At the very least, they said, using services like daily symptom-checking apps may reassure students and remind them to be vigilant about other measures, like mask wearing.
Some public health experts said it was understandable that colleges had not methodically assessed the technology’s effectiveness against the coronavirus. After all, they said, schools are unaccustomed to frequently screening their entire campus populations for new infectious diseases.
Even so, some experts said they were troubled that universities lacked important information that might help them make more evidence-based decisions on health screening.
“It’s a massive data vacuum,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who is an assistant professor at George Mason University. “The moral of the story is you can’t just invest in this tech without having a validation process behind it.”
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