NOEL KING, HOST:
All right, so businesses are trying to reopen during the pandemic. And in order to do that, they're using monitoring systems to screen employees for the coronavirus. They have a lot of options, as NPR's Jason Beaubien discovered.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In March of this year, Dr. Achintya Moulick found himself at the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic. Moulick oversees three CarePoint Health hospitals in northern New Jersey, and they were swamped with people trying to get help.
ACHINTYA MOULICK: One day I saw a big line outside the entrance of the hospital, and they were manually checking everybody's temperature and giving them stamps.
BEAUBIEN: Moulick thought, this is crazy.
MOULICK: The lines were all the way out to the garage.
BEAUBIEN: Taking everyone's temperature with handheld thermometers 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.
MOULICK: It checks the temperature and communicates to the security personnel, which can go into any system inside the hospital, so we can have a rapid throughput of these people into the hospital.
BEAUBIEN: 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 firms offering systems to help employers confront the new challenges of COVID-19. Some of them are as simple as an app for employees to report any COVID symptoms. Others use Bluetooth devices on company ID badges to make sure workers are staying at least 6-feet apart. Then, if someone comes down with COVID, the company knows exactly who that person had contact with for how long, and even when exactly their temperature started to rise.
Harish Pai is the chief technology officer at Zyter.
HARISH PAI: All of that data can be tracked through a cloud-based portal as well on an ongoing basis, so you have a complete snapshot of your organization across facilities, across locations, and what is your risk of exposure.
BEAUBIEN: Zyter has another system that uses facial recognition linked to a network of digital cameras around the facility.
PAI: The digital camera-based solution, which is very nonintrusive, is probably much more secure because it can track a person all through the facility and be able to identify that person.
BEAUBIEN: But many people might consider this surveillance an invasion of privacy. Some employees will find it creepy if their every movement and even their body temperature is being tracked by their boss. Should HR know exactly how long you spent in the bathroom? But in the midst of a pandemic, a firm may want to know if too many people are congregating in a break room.
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 their biggest customers.
PAI: For example, we are deploying the entire contact tracing - the servers and the cameras-based solution - for a customer - for a large manufacturing customer out of Malaysia as we speak.
BEAUBIEN: 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.
KRISTIN BAKER SPOHN: So if that purpose is the collective health of your employer and company population, I think that's something that we'll see a lot of people be excited and eager to adapt to. But how you frame and how you protect that information is paramount to making sure that there is adoption and success.
BEAUBIEN: And potentially keeping coronavirus outbreaks in the workplace to a minimum.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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