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Thermal cameras latest ‘eyes in the sky’ at Las Vegas casinos

Updated May 30, 2020 - 11:12 am

Beginning Thursday, Las Vegas casino visitors can expect to see even more “eyes in the sky.”

Casino operators have enhanced their health and safety plans in recent months, with some installing thermal cameras at entrances in an effort to stop those with fevers — one symptom of the novel coronavirus — from venturing inside.

But the effectiveness of these devices in warding off a second wave of COVID-19 is up for debate.

“These are not medical devices. These are not designed to detect fevers,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV and a member of the medical team advising Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak. “The challenge is that these are really unproven technologies, and they’re not cheap, and so people are spending a lot of money on something that might not do anything for them.”

How effective are they?

The Nevada Gaming Control Board is not requiring properties to install thermal cameras, but it does want them to screen hotel guests’ temperatures upon entry. Some properties plan to use thermal cameras to streamline the initial temperature screen.

If a visitor’s temperature is below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the person will be allowed to enter. If the temperature is any higher, the guest will have to sit in a holding area for 15 minutes before being tested again.

If the visitor still shows a fever, the guest will be sent to a separate holding area where he or she can get immediate transport to a hospital via 911 or be counseled by a medical professional on site or via telemedicine. The visitor then can either leave by medical transport to a hospital or can go to one of 10 nongaming hotels set to quarantine tourists who could have the coronavirus. The hotels have not been identified by Clark County, the Gaming Control Board or University Medical Center.

While these measures could help resorts keep the virus at bay, Labus said there are holes in the system.

“They’re really not going to get rid of all infectious people, because … a number of people don’t have fevers, don’t have symptoms at all,” he said. “Those people would still be coming to the casino with no problem.”

According to a peer-reviewed study published Wednesday in medical journal Thorax, more than 80 percent of passengers and crew infected by the coronavirus on a cruise ship did not show any symptoms.

Labus added that these screening measures work best when paired with other health and safety protocols, something all casino operators plan to implement.

Ron Hill, a marketing professor at the American University Kogod School of Business, said while some guests will have no safety concerns, these measures will help create the sense of security needed to attract other visitors.

“Part of what Vegas is going to be dealing with is, how do we get people to come here,” he said. “Visible (safety efforts) demonstrate your concern, and people take it as an attempt to protect them.”

That reassurance comes at a cost; James Cannon, president and CEO of one of the largest thermal camera companies, FLIR, said during a May 6 earnings call the average selling price of the cameras is between $5,000 and $15,000, but “they can be much more expensive than that, depending on what the customer wants.”

Not medical-grade technology

Among the six largest casino operators in the valley, Caesars Entertainment Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd., Las Vegas Sands Corp., Red Rock Resorts and Boyd Gaming Corp. have confirmed they plan to use thermal cameras in some capacity. Spokespeople for MGM Resorts International did not respond to requests for comment.

“When we reopen, we know the single most important thing we can do now is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who comes in our properties,” said Boyd spokesman David Strow. “We’re committed to doing it right.”

All six companies didn’t respond or declined to comment on the companies they’re working with to screen temperatures.

Ezra Merrill, vice president of marketing for FLIR, told the Review-Journal he isn’t able to disclose the Las Vegas casino operators the company is working with, but said it is “engaged with many of them.”

According to Merrill, the cameras are not meant to be considered a medical device, and are meant only to act as a “frontline tool” to screen elevated skin temperatures, not core body temperatures. He suggested companies using thermal cameras also use medically approved devices to check guests’ core temperature.

Nevertheless, FLIR’s business has been booming since the pandemic broke out; the company booked about $100 million in the first quarter for devices that look for elevated skin temperatures.

“Given (COVID-19’s) global scale, we’ve seen exponential growth in business,” Merrill said. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure that everyone understands what the technology can and cannot do.”

The device works best when it can look at an area on the face near the tear duct, one person at a time. The whole process takes less than five seconds per person: They walk up to a camera, look at the device and then continue walking.

It takes only “a fraction of a second” for the camera to read an external temperature once it finds the magic spot near a person’s eye, Merrill said. The majority of those five seconds are spent walking up to the camera.

“Does that slow down flow? Potentially, but you can just multiply those lanes and add more cameras to counter that. We’ve seen things kind of ebb and flow,” he said. “Even in factories where we were screening, there wasn’t a line out the door.”

Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Morgan told the Review-Journal on May 1 she was not inclined to mandate the use of thermal cameras in part because she questioned how effective they would be in the desert heat.

“If people are walking from outside into a property, would a thermal imaging camera actually capture whether or not someone is truly ill?” she asked.

Merrill said thermal cameras do face additional challenges in the Las Vegas summer climate.

To counter this, he said FLIR’s devices use high-resolution, stable thermal cameras with a 0.5-degree Fahrenheit accuracy range to develop a baseline temperature for the people it screens.

“It’s important that we look at people and compare them to others,” Merrill said. “If everyone is coming in from those temperatures … it’s really important you look at people and compare them to other people to make the decision on whether or not they’re elevated.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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