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Tests would be much better than temperature checks

At the beginning of each in-person class day in the Tri-Lakes area, no student is allowed to enter a school building without first getting a temperature check and filling out short checklist, asking if they are experiencing other symptoms or have knowingly been exposed to anyone with COVID-19. Parents must do this in the morning, or else a school nurse must do it upon the student’s arrival. This checklist is the student’s ticket in the building. Any student with a higher-than-normal temperature or any other symptom or exposure on the list must stay home until being cleared by a doctor or until two weeks have passed.

The reliability of this screening is, at best, limited. On one hand, it makes it easy for students who don’t want to go to school to stay home for days or weeks at a time — although they still have to attend classes remotely, unlike in the past, so that’s good. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy for a sick student to slip through since many students and their parents don’t notice or pay much attention to symptoms, and don’t know about potential exposures.

Thermometers are harder to fool. Therefore, temperature checks hold an outsized role as our main COVID-19 screening tool — our first line of defense. Very few students or school employees are actually tested for COVID; getting results takes too long to make use it on every student every day.

The same goes for employees at nursing homes and hospitals.

National medical experts, however, are warning against over-reliance on temperature checks at schools and elsewhere.

“It makes you feel like you’re doing something,” Dr. David Thomas, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the New York Times about temperature checks. “But it won’t catch most people who are spreading COVID.” A Monday report by the Wall Street Journal quoted similar reactions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shifted its strategy for air travel and is no longer requiring temperature checks.

Yes, it’s good to know who has a fever when you’re trying to prevent the spread of disease, but many COVID-19 patients don’t have fevers, and we all know that many people with fevers don’t have COVID. More importantly, a person can be contagious for the coronavirus and not show any symptoms (fever or other) for up to a week or two — or ever.

We are not suggesting that schools stop taking temperatures. Everyone is doing the best they can right now, and still, our part of the country is doing better than most with virus spread. Still, we look forward to a day when we have abundant COVID tests with almost instantaneous turnaround times. Such tests exist, and have been used on many college campuses. If they could also be inexpensive, too, then that ticket in the door to a school, nursing home or hospital could be a heck of a lot more meaningful.

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