In March, Dr. Achintya Moulick found himself at the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic.
He oversees three CarePoint Health hospitals in northern New Jersey and in the early days of the pandemic, they were swamped. “We had no idea what this infection was all about,” he says.
One of the first challenges was screening patients for COVID-19 even before they entered the hospital.
“One day I saw a big line outside the entrance of the hospital,” he says. “And they were manually checking everybody’s temperature.”
Moulick thought this was illogical. “The lines were all the way out to the garage,” he says.
The process was diverting his front-line staff, burning through precious personal protective equipment and creating a bottleneck of potentially infectious patients outside his door.
So he hired a company that uses thermal scanners to take the temperature of up to 20 people at a time as they approach the front entrance.
The scanners allowed patients to flow more smoothly into the building, but the system also could alert nursing staff automatically if a patient needed immediate attention.
The thermal scanners are made by a company called Zyter. The readings can be used simply to let people in the door or for the company to keep a continuous record of employees’ temperatures.
Zyter is just one of dozens of companies offering systems to help employers confront the new challenges of COVID-19.
As more and more businesses look to reopen, technology firms have an array of monitoring systems to try to keep the coronavirus out of office buildings, medical facilities and industrial plants.
This sector could be a multibillion-dollar business in the coming year, analysts say.
Some of the system are as simple as an app for employees to report any COVID-19 symptoms. Others use Bluetooth devices connected to company ID badges to make sure workers are staying at least 6 feet apart.
If someone comes down with COVID-19, the company has a record of exactly who that person had contact with, for how long, and even when exactly their temperature started to rise.
“All of that data can be tracked through a cloud-based portal on an ongoing basis,” says Harish Pai, the chief technology officer at Zyter.
“So you have a complete snapshot of your organization across facilities, across locations, and what is your risk of exposure,” he says.
Zyter has even more sophisticated monitoring systems that don’t require any tracking devices on workers. One such system uses facial recognition linked to a network of digital cameras.
“It can track a person all through the facility and be able to identify that person,” Pai says. So any potential coronavirus exposure can be identified. Rather than shutting down an entire unit of a factory if one worker gets sick, the system can identify who actually was close to the person who tested positive. Those employees can be quarantined and tested. The rest of the unit can keep working.
These COVID-19 monitoring systems raise obvious privacy concerns. Some employees will find it creepy if their every movement and even their body temperature is being tracked by their boss. Should human resources know exactly how long you spent in the bathroom?
But in the midst of the pandemic, a company may want to know if too many people are congregating in a break room or if certain units are regularly violating social distancing rules.
Employees give up many rights to privacy when they arrive at work, and courts have ruled that private companies have broad rights to monitor what happens on their premises.
Amazon is using a camera-based AI system it calls “distance assistant” to keep people spaced out in its warehouses.
Pai from Zyter says industrial plants where work from home isn’t possible are some of his company’s biggest customers.
“For example, we are deploying the entire contact tracing, the service and the cameras-based solution for a large manufacturing customer out of Malaysia as we speak,” he says.
Some companies are adopting the bare minimum, doing just enough so the health department allows them to operate. Others like the manufacturing plant in Malaysia are monitoring every interaction at their workplace.
Kristin Baker Spohn, a partner with the tech venture capital firm CRV, says employers need to be very clear about the purpose of the new technologies they’re using.
“If that purpose is the collective health of your company population, I think that’s something that we’ll see a lot of people be excited and eager to adapt to,” she says. “But how you frame and how you protect that information is paramount to making sure that there is adoption and success.”
And until there’s a vaccine, the successful monitoring and suppression of the virus will be key to whether businesses can stay open.