Gov. Suggests Temperature Checks in Reopening Plan, But How Would That Work?

The U.S. would need somewhere to send people who may have a fever before testing them at businesses, an expert says

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In an interview this week with NBC10, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy mentioned some hypotheticals about reopening the economy after the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Though he stressed the plan would need to be vetted first, he mentioned the possibility of restaurants operating at 50 percent capacity, with staff wearing masks, gloves. And customers would get their temperature checked before entering.

But what would that really look like, and would it work? NBC10 spoke with two experts to sound off on the proposal, a day after the White House told states it's up to them to decide how to reopen.

"There are ways to get around that temperature check," said Dr. Arnold Baskies, past chairman of the American Cancer Society and chair of the Global Cancer Control Advisory Council. "Taking Tylenol or some other medication like Motrin, that would negate that as a screening tool."

One of the symptoms of coronavirus is a fever, along with shortness of breath and respiratory distress. But symptoms may not show right away after being infected with the virus.

That's why officials have stressed the importance of wearing masks as a barrier to prevent unknowingly infected people from spreading it. Asymptomatic people can spread the virus.

Krys Johnson, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University, has a friend who bought an infrared thermometer years ago, when they first hit the market.

When she would visit, the friend would aim the thermometer beam at her forehead to mess with her. At the time, it was a strange thing to do.

"Now? It's not weird, I would definitely be doing that," she said.

Ethan Miller
Touro University Nevada medical student Taylor Vikery helps get a no-touch forehead thermometer ready before conducting medical screenings at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center on March 28, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada was closed this week after a homeless man who used their services tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving about 500 people with no overnight shelter. The city of Las Vegas, Clark County and local homeless providers plan to operate the shelter tonight through April 3rd when it is anticipated that the Catholic Charities facility will be back open. The city is also reserving the building spaces at Cashman Center in case of an overflow of hospital patients. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11th. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

But at the same time, temperature screening is best when you are screening everyone and you have a place for them to go where they can't spread the virus. You don't want to send someone with a fever home and have them transmit the virus to their family.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, the country set up fever clinics, which were separate from emergency rooms to avoid cases from going into the hospital emergency rooms, Johnson said.

"You sit in the clinic until your test comes back," she said. If it's positive, "they have a hotel room for you to stay in until you are no longer infected."

Booking the hotels was expensive, but it's cheaper than not having to treat a huge number of people, she added.

"China has kept the clinics the last 16-17 years because of what they learned from SARS," Johnson said. "I don't know if we have the foresight and I guess the hindsight to have those kinds of facilities."

So the temperature checking at businesses isn't something that's going to happen tomorrow. Employers would need supplies like the thermometers, and probably personal protective equipment (PPE) for whoever is screening customers at the door.

And there's a definite concern of reopening too early. Showing a slide from her lecture on the differences and similarities between the current pandemic and the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic, she pointed to a spike in cases in the fall as things went back to "normal" too quickly.

And then, a possible security concern: "What if people say no, I'm gonna go in anyway?" Johnson said.

If ordering businesses to measure for fever is the way officials want to go, they can use those infrared thermometers, which can be held an inch away from the forehead and are easy to use, Baskies said.

And in the U.S. - very different from China in its approach, he added - the person with a fever would call their physician, enter self-quarantine and be monitored to make sure their symptoms didn't progress.

But he stressed the most effective, reliable method of detecting the virus is antibody testing, which looks for evidence in the body that the immune system has fought the virus.

Murphy has said that no major reopening will happen without more tests.

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