By Natasha Singer and Kellen Browning, The New York Times Co.

Before the University of Idaho welcomed students back to campus in the 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.



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