Colleges that require virus-screening tech struggle to say whether it works

By Natasha Singer and Kellen Browning

Before the University of Idaho welcomed students back to campus last fall, it made a big bet on new virus-screening technology.

The university spent $90,000 installing temperature-scanning stations, which look like airport metal detectors, in front of its dining and athletic facilities in Moscow, Idaho. When the system clocks a student walking through with an unusually high temperature, the student is asked to leave and go get tested for COVID-19.

But so far the fever scanners, which detect skin temperature, have caught fewer than 10 people out of the 9,000 students living on or near campus. Even then, university administrators could not say whether the technology had been effective because they have not tracked students flagged with fevers to see if they went on to get tested for the virus.

The University of Idaho is one of hundreds of colleges and universities that adopted 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 intervention: frequent virus testing of all students. They also help colleges showcase their pandemic safety efforts.

But the struggle at many colleges to keep the virus at bay has raised questions about the usefulness of the technologies. A New York Times effort has recorded more than 530,000 virus cases on campuses since the start of the pandemic.

One problem is that temperature scanners and symptom-checking apps cannot catch the estimated 40% of people with the coronavirus who do not have symptoms but are still infectious. Temperature scanners can also be wildly inaccurate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that such symptom-based screening has only “limited effectiveness.”

The schools have a hard time saying whether — or how well — the new devices have worked. Many universities and colleges, including prominent research institutions, are not rigorously studying effectiveness.

“So why are we bothering?” said Bruce Schneier, a prominent security technologist who has described such screening systems as “security theater” — that is, tools that make people feel better without actually improving their safety. “Why spend the money?”

More than 100 schools are using a free virus symptom-checking app, called CampusClear, that can clear students to enter campus buildings. Others are asking students to wear symptom-monitoring devices that can continuously track vital signs like skin temperature. And some have adapted the ID card swiping systems they use to admit students into dorms, libraries and gyms as tools for tracing potential virus exposures.

Administrators at Idaho and other universities said their schools were using the new tech, along with policies like social distancing, as part of larger campus efforts to hinder the virus.

Some said it was important for their schools to deploy the screening tools even if they were only moderately useful. At the very least, they said, using services like daily symptom-checking apps may reassure students and remind them to be vigilant about other measures, like mask wearing.

Some public health experts said it was understandable that colleges had not methodically assessed the technology’s effectiveness against the coronavirus. After all, they said, schools are unaccustomed to frequently screening their entire campus populations for new infectious diseases.

Even so, some experts said they were troubled that universities lacked important information that might help them make more evidence-based decisions on health screening.

“It’s a massive data vacuum,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease researcher who is an assistant professor at George Mason University. “The moral of the story is you can’t just invest in this tech without having a validation process behind it.”

Other medical experts said increased surveillance of largely healthy college students seemed unduly intrusive, given that symptom checkers have limited usefulness and the effectiveness of wearable health monitors against COVID-19 is not yet known.

At some universities, administrators acknowledged that the tech they adopted this school year did not pan out the way they had hoped.

Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, introduced two tools last semester that recorded students’ whereabouts in case they later developed virus infections and administrators needed to trace their contacts. One system logged students’ locations every time they swiped their ID cards to enter campus buildings. The other asked students to scan printed-out QR codes posted at certain locations around campus.

By the end of the semester, however, only about one-third of the 1,200 students on campus were scanning the bar codes. Ethan Child, a Bridgewater senior, said he had scanned the QR codes but also skipped them when walking by in the rain.

“I think it’s reasonable to ask students to do it — whether or not they’ll actually do it is another thing,” he said. “People might just pass it by.”

Administrators discovered that the key to hindering coronavirus outbreaks was not technology but simply frequent testing — once a week, for on-campus students — along with contact tracing, said Chris Frazer, executive director of the university’s wellness center.

“I’m glad we didn’t spend an exorbitant amount of money” on tech tools, Frazer said. “We found what we need is tests and more tests.”

The location-tracking tools ultimately proved most useful for “peace of mind,” he added, and to confirm the findings of contact tracers, who often learned much more about infected students’ activities by calling them than by examining their location logs.

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