Fact or Fiction: Dissecting the Hype around Thermal Cameras for COVID-19 Re-Entry

By May 5, 2020February 24th, 2021No Comments

By: Alex Wasson, Director of Security

After extended isolation, the curve of Coronavirus cases is beginning to flatten, and businesses are beginning to plan in earnest for a return to an open society. Keeping people safe is naturally a high priority, and many business owners are exploring solutions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in their workplace.

One such solution is thermal imaging cameras. The idea seems simple enough: top-of-the-line thermal cameras give an accurate readout of skin temperature, so people often conclude that they should function as readymade fever detectors.

Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple, and potential users should beware of a growing trend of misinformation on the topic. While thermal imaging is a powerful technology when applied correctly, these cameras are not approved for fever screening, and cannot be relied upon as a standalone solution.

In promoting these cameras as a fever detection tool, companies are willingly stepping into a legal and an ethical gray area. Ordinarily, this would not even be allowed, because selling technology as a medical device requires a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 510(k) clearance. Obtaining this certification means the product undergoes screening progress and must be submitted at least 90 days before going to market.

The FDA has temporarily opted not to enforce this restriction, in order to avoid consumers being denied access to potentially helpful technology during a health crisis due to red tape. As a result, numerous cameras are currently being marketed as medical diagnostic tools without a 510(k) clearance.

Not only does this allow manufacturers to avoid the usual performance testing requirements, it ultimately enables them to make exaggerated claims about the nature of the technology itself. This has resulted in a rush of product lines with intentionally deceptive names like “Fever Detection COVID-19 Screening System”.

This is overpromising at best, or false advertising at worst, and will likely be halted once the FDA resumes enforcing 510(k) clearances. Unfortunately, the bad actors involved appear to be gambling on the idea that they can take advantage of enough well-meaning but uninformed business owners in the meantime to make the risk worth it.

On the other hand, responsible technology providers understand this technology for what it is and are honest about both its strengths and limitations. Integrators should not be selling it as a miracle solution, but as a beneficial supplemental tool that can bolster your coronavirus safety plan.

High-quality thermographic cameras are capable of providing a skin temperature reading that is accurate to .9°F or better. Temperature monitoring can provide a crucial heads-up that an employee or visitor is showing a temperature that requires further attention, but that is not the same as a plug-and-play solution that detects a fever or an infection.

This distinction is not just semantics; it has practical and legal implications for the way the technology is used.

Suppose your thermal camera is located at the main entrance to your building. Individuals walking in may display skin temperatures that are influenced by environmental factors like weather, activity (such as running through the parking lot), or interference due to several people entering at the same time.

Therefore, if the camera detects an individual with an elevated temperature, that result must be confirmed by the use of a traditional clinical thermometer. This not only avoids false positives but adds a layer of credibility and reassurance to the process.

In every crisis, there are bound to be bad actors looking to capitalize on fear for profits, and COVID-19 is undoubtedly no exception. This underscores the importance of not only doing research to stay informed but partnering with trustworthy technology providers for the long haul. When times are tough, you need a partner who knows your needs and offers practical solutions, not lofty promises aimed at scoring a quick sale.