One of the enduring images of the current coronavirus outbreak is a space-age looking thermometer pointed at an airplane passenger.
Eleven airports in the United States are using these temperature checks as part of expanded screening for novel coronavirus, and those measures might seem reassuring. If someone doesn’t have a fever, it seems like they’re fine — right?
Not so fast.
While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has screened more than 30,000 passengers in the past month, not a single US coronavirus case has been caught by airport temperature checks, according to a CNN investigation.
There has long been debate about the usefulness of airport temperature checks, but this recent experience at US airports, plus a new European study, seem to point in the direction that they don’t work.
Earlier this month, British researchers published a study showing that temperature checks will fail to detect a coronavirus infection nearly half the time.
At least one country has found airport temperature checks so unhelpful that it decided not to do them during the novel coronavirus outbreak. Israel used them in previous years for Ebola, SARS and H1N1, but found that they didn’t work.
“It is ineffective and inefficient,” said Dr. Itamar Grotto, associate director general of Israel’s Ministry of Health.
Grotto said the problem is that a normal temperature gives “false assurance.” Passengers with normal temperatures could still be in the incubation period, which means they’re infected, but have yet to develop a fever.
In addition, a small number of patients with the novel coronavirus don’t have fever, according to published studies.
Some experts are convinced that for these reasons, temperature checks at airports are useless.
“I don’t think airport temperature checks have any major effect on stopping or even slowing down transmission,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “We just don’t have any good data to support that.”