Companies, governments spending thousands on thermal cameras amid COVID-19, but do they work?

Companies, governments spending thousands on thermal cameras amid COVID-19, but do they work?

ATLANTA — As Georgia businesses continue to reopen, many are investing in a high-tech way to screen people for COVID-19.

Companies are buying new cameras that can scan a crowd for high fevers.

Channel 2 Action News has found at least one local government that has spent more than $100,000 on the cameras.

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But Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray has found there are big questions about whether the cameras actually work.

New guidelines from the FDA said the cameras should not be used for mass fever screenings.

Local governments have started installing the cameras. Everyone who enters the Gwinnett County Justice Center passes by the cameras to have their temperatures screened.

“I mean, that’s pretty cool technology. Certainly happy they’re doing it,” Gwinnett County resident Ki Arnould said.

The so-called fever cameras are also part of the plan for re-opening Six Flags Over Georgia next week.

“I think it’s great. I mean if it works right, I think it’s great,” Gwinnett County resident Tom Aguero said.

But that is the problem. Both medical and technology experts told Channel 2 Action News that the cameras don’t work the way businesses and governments are counting on.

“Generally speaking, all of them have some issues,” Ethan Ace said.

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“I don’t see them being able to detect a lot of asymptomatic or low systematic coronavirus patients,” Dr. Jose Vazquez said.

Gwinnett County officials said the county purchased four of the fever detection systems for $29,500 each. A total of $118,000.

They bought them from a company that manufactures red light cameras called Red Speed. The company claims in its advertising that the cameras “help detect symptoms of illness.”

“There’s some truly incredible claims being made,” Ace said.

Ethan Ace works for IPVM, a surveillance industry research group that has been testing the fever camera systems.

“The truth that none of these companies want to discuss is all of these are going to miss. All of these are going to miss people with elevated temperature,” Ace said.

In their lab testing, IPVM found the most problems with cameras like those Gwinnett County installed are designed to screen many people quickly.

“With that many people walking, the cameras are going to tend to miss some of them. It’s going to tend to average temperatures out. We’ve seen these things repeatedly in our tests and it’s going to tend to miss some people,” Ace said.

Dr. Jose Vazquez is the head of infectious disease at Medical College of Georgia. He told Gray even if the machines were accurate, they wouldn't be much help spotting coronavirus because so many people with the virus don't have an extreme temperature.

“I don’t see it beneficial just using a camera per se,” Vazquez said. “In our patients that we’ve admitted here, about a third have no temperature.”

Both Vazquez and IPVM warn of another big problem here in Georgia: if the cameras are used at entrances, that the hot, humid Georgia summer will lead to false readings.

“We’ve seen people stand outside for 5 minutes come in and measure 102 degrees,” Ace said.

New FDA guidance on the cameras warns they should not be used for "mass fever screening."

The FDA said for the cameras to be used properly and accurately, you would need to wait 15 minutes in a temperature-controlled room before screening.

“Their recommendations are sort of unrealistic,” Ace said.

Even one of the biggest sellers of the thermal cameras -- a company called Flir -- warns on a disclaimer on its website saying “our products are not used to diagnose the coronavirus. Flir is not advertising our cameras for use in the medical industry or for medical purposes.”

But businesses and governments are spending millions on the cameras anyway.

IPVM says it’s the biggest rush on security cameras since 9/11.

“It’s a boom market right now,” Ace said.

In internal emails first obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the Gwinnet County administrator wrote: “This may be a preview of how we ‘return to normal.’”

County officials told Gray before installing the cameras, they were checking every temperature by hand with thermometers. The cameras now allow them to check temperatures without close contact.

Gray contacted Red Speed for comment on this story, but so far, they have not answered his request.

Gwinnett County and Six Flags say the cameras are just one of many safety precautions and all this doesn't mean the cameras won't catch someone who has coronavirus.

Testing by IPVM found that the cameras are good at flagging people with very high fevers.

“What is catching someone worth? If you catch one person you wouldn’t have caught before, is the system worth it? And I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s something each business needs to answer,” Ace said.

Vazquez said if you were tracking people over time as they enter and leave buildings with the cameras, that might give you better data.

He also said there is work being done to develop cameras that also measure respiratory rate and heart rate along with temperature. That would be useful.

But as they are used now, there could be a lot of false positives and negatives.​

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