The U.S. military is using inexpensive, simple procedures to check troops in South Korea for COVID-19 symptoms. Similar tools could help schools and hospitals at home.
Hawaii lawmakers are back at the Capitol today to find a solution to the state’s pandemic-related budget shortfall. While there, they’ll be relying on physical distancing and symptom checks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Across the ocean, U.S. military forces in South Korea are doing something similar to try and detect the virus. They are using a common household item: vinegar. The pungent liquid is used check soldiers’ sense of smell, the loss of which is now a confirmed symptom of the globe-spanning virus.
Lab tests for COVID-19, like nasal swabs and saliva samples, have been widely described as critical in containing the pandemic. But if used strategically, low-tech symptom checks can play an important role as well.
Tim Brown, an expert in infectious diseases and epidemic behavior at the East-West Center says that the main benefit of symptom screening, such as fever checks, is that they’re quick and easy.
“They’re non-invasive, they take only seconds, they can be done at the door,” Brown said.
A symptom check can be as simple as asking someone if they feel sick, filling out a questionnaire, or using a no-contact thermometer to take someone’s temperature. Their obvious weakness in screening for the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 is that not every infected person displays symptoms uniformly.
But if multiple checks are layered at strategic locations, they can be an effective tool. While fever checks are the most common, there are other options as well. At a U.S. Army base in near the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, gate guards are checking for an indicator of infection only recently confirmed to be associated with COVID-19: loss of smell.
Randall Ross oversees Safety and Occupational Health for U.S. Army Garrison Daegu. In an interview, he said the Army got the idea from South Korean hospital staff, which used smell checks on everyone entering medical facilities during the peak of the country’s outbreak in early March.
“They informed us that locally, 30 percent of the local COVID-19 positive patients have exhibited a degradation of their smell or taste,” Ross said.
The latest medical data show that reduced sense of smell is a common early symptom of COVID-19. One study found as many as 70 percent of positive patients experienced some loss of smell or taste. It is also apparently more common in younger patients and those with less-severe cases. The latter in particular present a significant risk for unknowingly transmitting the virus, making the smell test a potentially useful tool at homes and businesses.
Importantly, testing for loss of smell is fast and easy. Roth says, you don’t need much. Roth says the only equipment needed are gloves, a mask, cotton Q-tips, and apple cider vinegar from the grocery store.
To administer the test, a medic stationed at the entry gate hands a vinegar-dipped Q-tip to vehicle drivers. If they can smell the vinegar, they’re free to pass through. If the driver cannot smell anything, or experiences a reduced reaction, then they either have to provide another medical explanation or are referred for a secondary screening. The vinegar smell test is combined with a fever check and risk factor questionnaire.
Of course, there is one obvious weakness to the smell test, says Brown. “It’s relying on self-reporting and if people know ‘I’m supposed to say I smell something’ than I may just say that they smell something.” Additionally, not all those infected will experience a fever or loss of smell.
Still, symptom checks like these have been used effectively in places like Wuhan as well as South Korea. American military leaders on the Korean peninsula were able to rapidly contain the spread of the virus among U.S. troops, with little more than symptom checks and social distancing. Brown says spotting symptoms can play a valuable role, if used in the right setting.
“Any place where you’re likely to have significant crowding. In places like a health care setting, where workers are motivated to protect themselves and their co-workers, I think it could be very valuable there.”
He says schools, military bases, and prisons are all good candidates for increased symptom checks regimens.
In Honolulu, state lawmakers reconvene today to solve the $1 billion budget shortfall that has arisen as a result of the shutdown and decreased economic activity. There are currently no plans to give legislators the more definitive coronavirus lab test, which itself can have issues with false results.
Instead, lawmakers will receive fever checks before traveling to Oahu if coming from the Neighbor Islands and when entering the Capitol. They will also be subject to physical distancing rules.
That could soon be the practice at many workplaces. We may even have to start taking a whiff of vinegar before returning to the office.