Thermal Imaging is not a COVID-19 Solution

Jarod Stockdale

Suppose you’re the owner of a small business, a local bakery supplying various restaurant customers and local grocers, employing 200 people. You provide an essential product, and your business is an important source of fresh baked goods for the community. Now, because of this pandemic, you can no longer procure health safety products (gloves, masks, hair-nets, booties, etc.) for the food handlers. As is typical in industrial areas, your offices are in the same building as the production bakery, with a shared main entrance and exits. You cannot isolate areas for reasons of fire code. You have no choice but to close up shop.

Now you see advertisements for thermal imaging equipment that can be deployed in a single day and claims to be more than 99 percent accurate in screening for COVID-19. You can quickly set this up, efficiently screen your workers, and get back in business, right?

Wrong. FLIR, the global leader in thermal imaging technology for military and civilian applications for the past 50 years, issued a formal statement about companies claiming to utilize their thermal cameras in “COVID-19 Detection” schemes. They stated: “Can thermal cameras be used to detect a virus or an infection? The quick answer to this question is no, but thermal imaging cameras can be used to detect Elevated Body Temperature.”

Screening for elevated body temperature could allow any or all of the following scenarios to occur:

  • The equipment identifies someone with a fever. As it turns out, that person does have COVID-19. When they should have been quarantined at their home or in a hospital, you have brought them to your place of business, potentially exposing your entire staff as they waited in line, the staff people who screened them, as well as anyone they came in contact with on the way to work.
  • Someone has COVID-19 but really needs their paycheck. They take over-the-counter products to bring their fever down and control their cough and make it through the screening.
  • Someone does not have COVID-19 or any infectious disease but does register a fever. This person must go home and be quarantined for 14 days or be tested for the virus.

In claiming to be screening for COVID-19 using thermal imaging, organizations also have to consider these elements of liability:

  • At what point does screening for a fever become a medical test? At what point does the result of that screen become protected personal medical information (PMI)? It is common and legal for employers to conduct drug screening. However, those tests are done by trained medical professionals using FDA-approved testing procedures with long-established reliability.
  • Can an employer legally require screening for fever by a device that is not FDA-approved and not conducted by a medical professional?
  • Does your Human Resources department have adequate training in the handling of HIPAA-protected PMI? Does the security staff that would presumably be tasked to operate the thermal imaging equipment and software?
  • When you’ve identified someone with an elevated body temperature, how far does your level of responsibility extend in terms of notifying those the person may have come in contact with on the way to work?

In the future, thermal imaging may be incorporated as part of well-planned, layered solutions to infectious disease containment in certain types of facilities. It is not, however, a one-off solution for businesses under the current circumstances. Selling it as such is irresponsible and dangerous.

We have a responsibility as an industry to lend our expertise to help in any way we can. We also have a responsibility not to take advantage of the crisis to do business in ways that could worsen it for the public and our clients.

Jarod Stockdale
Jarod Stockdale, CPP, CFI, Principal Consultant

Building technology is in Jarod’s blood. With his father in the telecom business, Jarod learned to pull and terminate cable as a teenager. He worked various trades in construction, learning a multitude of skillsets. With security cameras, he found his true interest and never looked back. Jarod’s passion for working in the security industry is a strong motivator. He enjoys the opportunity to make an impact in the local community and in the industry.