Before the University of Idaho welcomed students back to campus last fall, it relied on new virus-screening technologies.
The university spent $ 90,000 to install temperature sensing stations that look like metal detectors at the airport in front of their restaurants and sports facilities in Moscow, Idaho. If the system goes through a student with an abnormally high temperature, the student will be asked to go and get tested for Covid-19.
So far, the fever scanners that record skin temperature have recorded fewer than 10 out of 9,000 students on or near campus. Even then, the university administrators couldn’t tell if the technology was effective as they didn’t track any students marked with a fever to see if they were subsequently tested for the virus.
The University of Idaho is one of hundreds of colleges and universities to introduce fever scanners, symptom checkers, wearable heart rate monitors, and other new Covid screening technologies this school year. Such tools often cost less than a more validated health measure: frequent virus testing of all students. They also help universities demonstrate their safety efforts during pandemics.
However, the struggle at many universities to keep the virus at bay has raised questions about the usefulness of the technologies. In a New York Times, more than 530,000 virus cases have been recorded on campus since the pandemic began.
One problem is that temperature scanners and symptom-checking apps fail to capture the estimated 40 percent of people with the coronavirus who have no symptoms but are still infectious. Temperature scanners can also be very inaccurate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that such symptom-based screening has “limited effectiveness”.
Schools find it difficult to say whether – or how well – the new equipment has worked. Many universities and colleges, including prominent research institutions, do not rigorously investigate its effectiveness.
“So why are we bothering each other?” said Bruce Schneier, a well-known security technologist who has referred to such verification systems as “security theater” – tools that make people feel better without actually improving their security. “Why spend the money?”
More than 100 schools use a free virus symptom checking app called CampusClear, which allows students to enter campus buildings. Others urge students to wear symptom monitoring devices that can continuously record vital signs such as skin temperature. And some have customized the ID card swiping systems they use to admit students to dorms, libraries, and gyms to track potential virus exposures.
Administrators in Idaho and other universities said their schools are using the new technology along with guidelines like social distancing as part of a larger campus effort to prevent the virus. Some said it was important for their schools to use the screening tools, even if they were only moderately useful. At the very least, by using services such as daily symptom-checking apps, students could reassure students and remind them to be vigilant about other measures such as wearing masks.
Some public health experts said it was understandable that universities had not methodically assessed the technology’s effectiveness against the coronavirus. After all, schools are not used to frequently examining their entire campus population for new infectious diseases.
Even so, some experts said they were concerned that universities lacked vital information that could help them make more evidence-based decisions about health screening.
“It’s a massive data vacuum,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist who is an assistant professor at George Mason University. “The moral of the story is that you can’t just invest in this technology without having a validation process behind it.”
Other medical experts said increased surveillance of largely healthy college students was inappropriately intrusive because symptom checkers have limited usefulness and the effectiveness of portable health monitors against Covid-19 is not yet known.
March 2, 2021, 10:15 p.m. ET
The introduction of campus screening tools has often been bumpy. Last fall, the University of Missouri required all students, faculties, and staff to use CampusClear, a free app that asks users about possible symptoms such as high temperature or loss of smell. Users who say they have no symptoms receive a “Good to Go!” Notification that allows them to be released to enter campus buildings.
However, the school did not initially enforce the use of CampusClear at building entrances, and some students have rarely used the app, according to reports from campus newspaper The Missourian. In October, the university asked people to show their app passcode to enter certain buildings such as the student center and library. The university has promoted the app as a tool for educating students.
How effective it was in preventing coronavirus outbreaks on campus is unknown. A spokesman for the University of Missouri said the school could not provide usage data on CampusClear – including the number of students who reported possible symptoms through the app and later tested positive for the virus – requested by a Times reporter.
Jason Fife, director of marketing at Ivy.ai, the start-up behind CampusClear, said nearly 425,000 people at about 120 colleges and universities used the app and generated about 9.8 million user reports last semester. Many schools use data from the app not to track individual virus cases, but to look for symptom trends at their locations.
However, Ivy.ai cannot judge the app’s effectiveness as a virus screening tool, he said. In order to protect privacy, the company does not track individual users who report symptoms and later test positive for the infection.
At some universities, administrators admitted that the technology they’d introduced that school year wasn’t going as they’d hoped.
Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts introduced two tools last semester to record the whereabouts of students in case they later developed viral infections and administrators needed to track their contacts. A system logged the students’ locations every time they swiped their ID cards to enter campus buildings. The others asked students to scan printed QR codes that were posted in specific locations on campus.
By the end of the semester, however, only about a third of the 1,200 students on campus had scanned the barcodes. Ethan Child, a senior at Bridgewater, said he scanned the QR codes but also skipped them when walking past in the rain.
“I think it’s reasonable to ask students to do it – whether or not they actually do it is a different matter,” he said. “People could just get past it.”
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Administrators found that the key to preventing coronavirus outbreaks was not in technology, but simply in frequent testing – once a week for students on campus – as well as contact tracing, said Chris Frazer, executive director of the university’s wellness center.
“I’m glad we didn’t spend an inordinate amount of money,” said Dr. Frazer. “We realized we needed testing and more testing.”
The location tracking tools ultimately proved extremely useful for “calming down” and confirming the results of contact tracers, who often learned much more about the activities of infected students by calling them than by examining their location logs.
Other schools that discovered location tracking were not a useful pandemic safety tool and decided not to use it at all.
At Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, administrators said they planned to log students’ locations when they used campus WiFi for possible future use in contact tracing. But the school never put the system in place, said Chris Barlow, the school’s health director, in part because administrators realized that many off-campus students had contracted the virus in situations where public health measures were required how the wearing of masks was not followed.
At the University of Idaho and other schools, administrators described devices like fever scanners as a complement to larger campus security efforts that include student tests and measures like social distancing.
For example, last fall, the University of Idaho tested its students for viruses early and mid-term, including some random tests. The school also used a sewage testing program to identify an impending virus outbreak in brotherhood houses and proactively quarantine more than a dozen chapters before cases could spread across the community.
“We got out early before that,” said C. Scott Green, president of the University of Idaho. “We were able to isolate the sick and have brought ourselves back under control.”
Still, there were hiccups. The university asked employees of the food service who worked in the dining room to undergo a temperature control with hand-held scanners. Even so, several viral infections developed and the university had to temporarily close the dining room for a weekend to do a thorough cleaning.
With the free-standing temperature sensing stations, Mr. Green himself experienced its limits. He said someone mistakenly prevented him from entering a sports building right after getting out of a hot car.