Why Temperature Checks Are Not the Answer
Taking people’s temperature at airports and restaurants needs to be part of a more comprehensive strategy
Temperature screening has been recommended as part of a strategy for businesses that are reopening. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidance for how businesses can do so safely and protect the person taking temperatures.
Yet while temperature checks make sense in theory as a way to identify someone who is ill, some experts say that businesses and public spaces should not rely on them alone to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The issue is that while some people get a temperature when they contract the coronavirus, it’s not the case for everyone. And one unique aspect of the virus that causes Covid-19 is that infected people are contagious in the period before they start to develop symptoms (if they do eventually develop them). That’s why other protection methods, like wearing masks, making sure people are spread apart, and maintaining cleaning and disinfection procedures, are critical.
New data released from the clinical testing company Color found that among 30,000 people tested for Covid-19, 300 tested positive. Among those people, 30% had no symptoms when they were tested, 37% had a cough, 32% had a headache, 16% lost their sense of smell, and 12% had a high fever. While identifying 12% of people who might be at risk is not nothing, it’s also clear that a high fever is not necessarily the most reliable metric to screen people for Covid-19.
“Fever screening can be one part of a wider system, but it’s still unclear how much marginal benefit there is,” Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.com.
As Jim Collins, a bioengineering professor at MIT, told Business Insider, “You can have a fever for a lot of reasons. Maybe you ran to work or you rode a bike and your temp goes way up, or you have any number of strains of flu or a cold or strep throat.”
People can also take medication to bring down their fever and pass through temperature screenings undetected. As the New York Times reported in May, more than 1,000 employees of the Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, contracted Covid-19 even though the meat plant said it was taking precautions with temperature screenings. One worker who died from the disease had taken Tylenol before entering the plant to lower her temperature enough to pass the screening because she was afraid to lose out on a bonus.
Covid-19 is such a hard virus to control that businesses may utilize any effort that provides some use. If a person has a fever, it might be worth considering whether they should be at work or at a restaurant in the first place, even if they may not have Covid-19 per se. The issue is if public spaces start to lean heavily on temperature checks alone. It’s not a foolproof strategy and is only marginally helpful. Masks, physical distancing, and hand-washing are still recommended.