As they scrambled last month to find a way to pinpoint infections from the novel coronavirus, officials in Georgia’s Gwinnett County sought help from an unusual source: an Illinois-based seller of red-light traffic cameras.
RedSpeed USA had begun advertising a "fever detector" that it described as fast and accurate, using "ground-breaking technology [to] identify symptoms of illness." The county of nearly a million people in the Atlanta suburbs, where more than 2,400 have confirmed infections and 87 have died, quickly approved an emergency purchase of four scanners to be installed inside county court and office buildings.
"This may be a preview of how we 'return to normal,' " the county administrator wrote in internal emails obtained by Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation and reviewed by The Washington Post.
Amid the rush, the county had paid a heavy premium: RedSpeed's setup, at roughly $30,000 a scanner, cost far more than similar systems sold by established competitors - including the industry leader, FLIR Systems, whose scanners range from $5,000 to $15,000.
Industry experts actively dissuade buyers from using the cameras as "fever detectors," because they aren't designed for medical use. RedSpeed's scanners, technical documents show, had also been made by Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co., a Chinese surveillance-camera company banned by Congress in 2018 from selling to federal agencies, though that prohibition did not apply to local governments.
Companies and communities eager to get back to work have touched off a nationwide gold rush for thermal scanners, which measure the heat on a person's skin and can be used to estimate whether someone is feverish - a potential sign of the disease caused by the virus, covid-19.
But industry veterans say the frenzy also is stirring up confusion and leading some small businesses and public officials to spend heavily on cameras without understanding their limitations - namely, that they're not very good at actually detecting infections.
While the systems can sense elevated skin temperatures, they aren't precise enough to tell whether someone has a fever or something else: The warmth of a person's skin is often quite different from their core body heat. People with heavier builds, health conditions or hot flashes can trigger the system's alarms; so, too, can anyone just walking in from a hot car or parking lot.
Many people with covid-19 infections haven't actually had fevers: The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that as many as 25% of infected people don't show any symptoms at all. The virus' stealthy ability to not give itself away while it spreads led university researchers in February to estimate that fever scans and similar screening techniques would overlook more than half of the infected.
Those flaws haven't stopped companies with names such as Athena Security and Feevr from pitching high-tech "fever detection" systems they say could help make the difference between a safe workplace and a dangerous outbreak.
In a technical presentation sent to Gwinnett County, RedSpeed USA said that its system had been installed at emergency-operations centers and law-enforcement offices in South Florida, that the technology had been "essential to successfully containing the outbreak in China" and that it could provide "confidence that all is being done for community wellbeing."
An official at RedSpeed USA, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the deal was approved by county leaders and accurately reflected the system's purchasing, delivery, installation, training and support costs. Gwinnett officials declined to comment.
An executive at Feevr's parent company, X.Labs, said in a statement that its device is "designed to be used as a screening device, not a medical device" and "represents a front line proactive and precautionary step . . . which when combined with additional measures as dictated by medical professionals can help prevent the spread of an infectious disease." Athena officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The world's largest maker of such equipment, Oregon-based FLIR Systems, strongly cautions buyers to understand how the systems are meant to be used. The company has posted online disclaimers that its cameras are not "for medical purposes" and can't be used "to diagnose the coronavirus" or "find individuals experiencing coronavirus symptoms."
The devices were once bought almost exclusively by military authorities and industrial giants, but an influx of small businesses, public venues and other "nontraditional customers" has fueled a surge in demand, FLIR's chief executive Jim Cannon said in an interview last week.
FLIR sold more than $100 million worth of scanners that can screen for elevated skin temperatures in the first three months of this year, with sales going either directly to businesses or to resellers who package them under their own brand. But Cannon said he fears the new wave of interest could lead to companies misusing the scanners or looking for medical insights they weren't built to provide.
"We do have concerns that we see a lot of folks popping up in the marketplace making claims that, frankly, the science can't support," he said. "You can't just take any thermal camera and point it at someone and get an effective screening tool for their surface temperature without tremendous amounts of false alarming. . . . There are a lot of folks that have popped up overnight that we think are marketing solutions that don't do what they're intended to do."
Thermal cameras have traditionally been used for defense and security purposes, not medical screening: Installed for years at border crossings, ports and military bases, they can sense when people or vehicles are approaching, even in hazy weather or after nightfall.
The cameras have been used to speed up the temperature-taking process for security staff who might otherwise have to rely on only no-contact thermometers, taking readings one forehead at a time. Scanners were installed across airports in Asia during the SARS outbreak in 2003 to help monitor for high temperatures among moving crowds, but the move drew criticism from some health researchers over the rollout's "unproven efficacy."
While they are great at sensing the general presence of a warm body, thermal scanners are far less precise at assessing temperature for clinical use. Some systems advertised as "fever detection" devices, the surveillance-industry research site IPVM found, have an accuracy range of 3 degrees Fahrenheit - the difference between a feverish person and someone who's perfectly well.
Because of that, FLIR is careful to say its cameras only can pick up "elevated skin temperatures," not detect fevers or diagnose infections, and urges customers to use secondary screenings with more precise thermometers to better assess their clients and personnel.
Even with those limitations, the systems still are regarded as one of the few ways to quickly detect infection risk. Some companies and governments are racing to install the scanners to argue they can reopen safely, return to work or resume public life.
General Motors, Tyson Foods and other major employers have installed temperature scanners for their workers. Frontier Airlines next month will begin scanning the temperatures of every traveler boarding a plane.
In Florida's Palm Beach County, Dahua thermal cameras sold by RedSpeed and installed last month scan everyone who enters the county jail and courthouse, while a deputy with a laptop reviews people's temperatures from nearby. Several courthouse visitors in the last few weeks have been turned away at the door.
"It doesn't mean they've got covid . . . but we're not going to take that chance," Ric Bradshaw, the county's sheriff, told The Washington Post. "I don't think all this craziness is going to go away that soon."
Some industry experts worry companies and public officials using the technology for the first time are rushing back to work with a false sense of security. Ryan Barnett, the owner of Vetted Security Solutions, which has installed the scanners and other surveillance systems for law enforcement across the South, said he has seen a rise in companies marketing "fever detection" systems that can routinely give false readings or are not accurate enough for that use.
"The system isn't magic. It's just reading external temperatures," he said. "You don't want to be publicly shaming somebody or drawing negative attention to somebody because their temperature might be too high."
The pandemic has led federal officials to revise established rules around workplace and hiring protections, including by allowing employers to take workers' temperatures whenever they deem necessary and withdraw job offers to workers with confirmed infections. Tying people's paychecks to their temperature has also led some workers to pursue dangerous shortcuts: At a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Iowa where thermal scanners now check workers for fevers, the New York Times reported this month, one worker who died had taken Tylenol to reduce her temperature for fear she'd be blocked from coming to work.
Some industry veterans also fear companies and governments could overspend on thermal scanners and overlook cheaper methods, such as handheld thermometers, as they race to address public-health concerns. Some companies are now offering more sophisticated systems that can use face-detection software to take the temperature of a person's tear ducts - typically the most accurate indicator of their core body heat.
A setup of components nearly identical to what RedSpeed sold Gwinnett can be bought online for roughly half of RedSpeed's $30,000-a-system total bill. But the RedSpeed official defended its system as comparable to rival hardware and sold at a fair cost, saying the company had moved quickly to deliver and install the systems in a time of high demand.
Technical documents show the cameras installed by RedSpeed USA were manufactured by Zhejiang Dahua Technology, which Congress has banned from federal procurement, citing national-security concerns. Researchers at the Maryland-based cybersecurity firm ReFirm Labs said in 2017 that they had discovered a hidden "back door" in Dahua cameras that had been used to send data secretly to a Chinese network.
The Commerce Department last year also added the company to its "entity list," saying Dahua was part of a group of Chinese tech firms "implicated in human rights violations and abuses" as part of the country's "campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance" of Muslim minority groups in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
The blacklist prohibits federal government transactions but does not affect company or local-government deals. The RedSpeed official said the Dahua scanners do not connect to the internet and were selected for their price, availability and accuracy.
But deals such as RedSpeed's have raised alarms among lawmakers critical of Chinese technology. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement last week that no company or local government "should trust any equipment from Dahua" and that "installing Dahua equipment represents a massive security risk . . . for the nation as a whole."
Dahua did not respond to requests for comment. The company is a major international producer of security cameras and has contested its addition to the federal blacklist, saying the decision lacks "any factual basis."
Questions over Chinese production could become a sticking point as thermal-scanner sales ramp up. FLIR, the biggest American seller, said it has seen a "dramatic and rapid increase in demand" and has a record backlog of roughly $859 million in pending deliveries.
Reuters last month reported that Amazon had bought hundreds of Dahua cameras to scan workers' temperatures. Amazon would not confirm the Dahua purchase but said it uses systems from a variety of manufacturers and all of the hardware follows local and federal law. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Many of the thermal scanners coming online have not been approved for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration, but the agency said last month it would not object to their expanded use amid the pandemic.
The rush of business for thermal scanners is "sort of like toilet paper," said Peter Arment, a senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. who studies defense technology. "And you're going to see more of this. Demand for temperature scanners is as red-hot as it's going to be. We have no modern medicine answer yet."
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Derek Kravitz, a data journalist at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, contributed to this report.