In Rochester, Michigan, Oakland University is preparing to distribute wearable devices to students that log skin temperature once a minute – or more than 1,400 times a day – in hopes of detecting early signs of the coronavirus.
In Plano, Texas, employees at the Rent-A Center headquarters recently started wearing proximity sensors that can log their close contacts with one another and alert them of possible virus exposure.
In Knoxville, students from the University of Tennessee soccer team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games. This allows the team's medical director to track which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.
The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high tech devices emerging in the fight against the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories, and nursing homes have already used them. The resorts are rushing to adopt them. Some schools are preparing to try them out. And the conference industry sees them as a potential tool for reopening convention centers.
"Everyone is at an early stage," said Laura Becker, research manager with a focus on employee experience at International Data Corporation, a market research firm. "If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to a sense of normalcy."
Companies and industry analysts say the portable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have introduced virus screening tools such as symptom review apps and temperature scan cameras. However, they are not designed to catch the estimated 40 percent of people with Covid-19 infections who may never develop symptoms such as a fever.
Some offices have also introduced smartphone virus tracking apps that detect user proximity. However, the new wearable trackers cater to a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers can't bring their phones or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.
This spring, when coronavirus infections began to rise, many professional soccer and basketball teams in the US were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a Munich-based company whose wearable sensors record data such as an athlete's speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices to the pandemic and introduced SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light when they are within two meters. The National Football League asked players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers starting in September.
The data helped establish the contacts of approximately 140 N.F.L. Players and staff who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the N.F.L. Players association. The system is particularly helpful in excluding people who have spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.
Southeastern Conference college football teams also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the team's chief medical officer at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when athletes were spending more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered that it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sidelines.
"We can tabulate this data and use this information to identify people who are in close contact with someone who is positive," said Dr. Klenck.
Civil rights and privacy advocates warn that the proliferation of such portable devices for continuous surveillance could lead to new forms of surveillance that will outlast the pandemic and usher in the same kind of full-scale real-world tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have launched online. They also warn that some wearable sensors could allow employers, colleges, or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people's locations or social networks, affecting their ability to meet and talk freely. And they say these data mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, such as undocumented immigrants or political activists.
"It's frightening that these invasive and unproven devices can become a condition of our jobs, school attendance or public participation," said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a Manhattan nonprofit. "Worse still, nothing prevents the police or ICE from asking schools and employers to hand over this data."
Executives at Kinexon and other companies marketing the portable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data mining risks and took steps to mitigate them.
Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity sensors, use Bluetooth technology to use the trackers to detect and log people who have been in close contact for more than 10 or 15 minutes. However, the system does not continuously monitor users' locations, said Ron Rock, CEO of Microshare. Also, ID codes, rather than the actual names of employees, are used to keep track of close contacts.
Mr Rock added that the system was designed for human resource managers or security officers in client companies to identify and alert employees who have spent time near an infected person, rather than to map workers' social connections.
GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company, recently started working with Microshare to develop a virus tracing system for its sites that makes over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of Asia Pacific digital supply chain technology for the company's Consumer Health Care, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers wearing the proximity sensors.
As a result, the system silos the collected data. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. In addition, the ID numbers of employees who have been in certain locations, such as A packing station in a warehouse, for example, is recorded separately so that the company can hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.
GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a location in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health operations in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also enabled the company to see where employees spend an unusual amount of time close to each other, such as when B. A safety switch, and changing procedures to improve social distancing, Lim said.
"It was really designed as a reactive solution," to help track down workers with potential virus exposure, he said. "But it has actually become a really powerful tool for proactively managing and protecting the safety of our employees."
Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and businesses preparing to make the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin sensor that is attached to the skin around the clock and tries using algorithms to detect possible signs of Covid19.
It is not yet known whether such continuous monitoring of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial. Researchers are only in the early stages of researching whether wearable technology can help identify signs of the disease.
David A. Stone, vice president of research at Oakland University, said school officials carefully checked the BioButton and determined that it was a low risk device that, in addition to measures such as social distancing and wearing masks, would stop the virus from spreading could hinder. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data such as their temperature readings.
"In an ideal world, we would like to be able to wait for this to be an F.D.A.-cleared diagnosis," said Dr. Stone. But he added, "Nothing about this pandemic was in an ideal world."
Dr. James Mault, executive director of BioIntelliSense, the start-up behind BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask that their personal information be removed from the company's records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining the effectiveness of its system for Covid-19.
Oakland originally planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff signed a petition protesting the policy. The tracker is now optional for students.
"Lots of colleges do masks and social distancing," said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, "but that seemed like a step too far."