Chemist Warehouse introduces temperature checks on customers

We've had to get used to social distancing at the checkout and queues outside the supermarket. Now some stores are demanding temperature checks just to get through the door.

Chemist Warehouse appears to be the first major retailer to demand customers are screened for signs of fever - an indication of coronavirus infection - as they enter the store.

Across the country, customers have spoken of having their forehead zapped with the laser guns as they seek out painkillers, shampoo and everything in between.

Some GP surgeries are also using the devices. Overseas retailers including some Apple stores have introduced the measure.

One Chemist Warehouse customer said he suspected the scanners were "mostly for show" after he claimed one gave him a wildly inaccurate reading.

There is no government advice for temperature scanners to be used by retailers.

An epidemiologist has said the forehead thermometers are a "blunt instrument" that provide no guarantee of detecting cases of COVID-19. But they can help minimise the risk of an infected person being in a store and discourage someone with a fever from heading to a chemist in the first place.

Chemist Warehouse has rolled out scanners to many of its stores. Picture: Sue Dunlevy
Chemist Warehouse has rolled out scanners to many of its stores. Picture: Sue Dunlevy



Temperature scanners are in high demand as the coronavirus pandemic continues. They're easy to use, allow temperatures to be taken quickly and all without any contact.

The thermometers measure temperature by focusing infra-red energy emitted from an object - a customer about to walk into a pharmacist for example - onto a detector that then converts that into a temperature reading.

The laser might be the most visual aspect of the gun but its only use is to aim the thermometer so it's reading a forehead rather than, say, a hot coffee the customer might be holding.

A reader said he was stopped on his way into the Chemist Warehouse store in the Westfield shopping centre in Parramatta, western Sydney, earlier this week.

"They stopped me and said I need to take your temperature. I asked, 'Will you not let me in if I don't,' and she said, 'Yes.'"

The customer, who didn't want to be named, said it was probably a "useful" tool that could be rolled out more widely.

On social media, a number of Chemist Warehouse customers have said they were also tested. If the machine registered 37.5C or above, they said customers were asked to wait outside for five minutes to be tested again. If their temperature had fallen, they could come in.

A healthy human temperature is generally around 36C to 37C. Anything above 38C could indicate a fever.



James Breko, from inner city Sydney, told he went to a CBD Chemist Warehouse where a security guard temperature tested him.

However, his result came out at a very chilly 34.3C. Far from a fever that would mean he had mild hypothermia, a condition he was pretty confident he wasn't suffering from.

That was a concern, Mr Breko said, because if the scanner was incorrectly calibrated it could mean people with a high temperature were passing through with artificially low readings.

"The second time I went in the scanner broke."

Mr Breko said it seemed the scanners were more for customer reassurance that actually playing a major role in detecting coronavirus cases.

"Chemist Warehouse aisles are really tight so social distancing is difficult.

"So even though it's more for show, knowing that no one felt they had a fever was a bit a relief at the time."

Chemist Warehouse has not commented for this article. But a manager at the Westfield Parramatta told the adoption of the guns wasn't across all stores.

She said security guards were charged with testing customers as they went into stores and the extra measure was being done "for the safety of our staff and customers," particularly as they were in a large mall that attracted lots of customers.

Dr Meru Sheel, an epidemiologist at Australian National University, said while temperature scanners were useful, they weren't a panacea for identifying people with COVID-19.

"There's no right or wrong answer; it's a crude way of detection but it can help minimise risk.

"Temperature screening is useful in identifying people who might prevent symptoms of fever and we know fever has been a commonly reported symptoms of COVID-19."

However, Dr Sheel pointed out that some people with coronavirus have no specific symptoms and even those that do eventually have a fever are likely to be infectious before their temperature rises.

"Not all people will present with a temperature and temperature screening does not guarantee it will pick up every infected person."

Checking every customer in a large shop could also be "onerous on resources," she said.

"But temperature scanning does sensitise people, so if you do have a fever and you know you are going to be checked you might tend to go out less."

A scan at a Chemist Warehouse in the Sydney coronavirus hot spot of Bondi Beach. Picture: John Grainger
A scan at a Chemist Warehouse in the Sydney coronavirus hot spot of Bondi Beach. Picture: John Grainger



There has been some concern that the thermometers could display inaccurate readings.

Writing for Forbes magazine, Professor of Health Policy at City University of New York Dr Bruce Lee said the real world was a lot more "chaotic" than the laboratory-like settings the devices were tested in.

"The accuracy of the devices may depend heavily on how they are used such as how far the device is from you, where exactly the device is pointed, and how long and steadily it is held until the reading registers."

People suffering from a fever could also have taken medication that had reduced their temperature, but not the virus causing it, Dr Lee said.

However, Dr Sheel said that if scanners were accredited and used properly, they should be accurate.



If Chemist Warehouse are using temperature scanners what about the big supermarkets? Getting the groceries is one of the few "reasonable excuses" to leave the house and people are still putting far more in their trolleys than usual so stores are busy.

Both Coles and Woolworths told there were no plans to introduce the forehead checks.

Major retailer have prioritised other measures including encouraging customers to keep 1.5m apart, cleaning trolleys and baskets, providing hand sanitiser and erecting screens at checkouts.

IGA store owners have said if temperature checks are mandated the government should provide support to stores.
IGA store owners have said if temperature checks are mandated the government should provide support to stores.

Jos de Bruin, the chief executive officer of industry association Master Grocers Australia that represents more than 2000 IGA, FoodWorks and Spar supermarkets, said temperature scanners "isn't something our members have on the radar".

He said as many IGA owners were far smaller than the big supermarkets, the cost of scanning each customer could be prohibitive.

"We have incredible concern for our staff and customers but the most important thing is to put in place good hygiene such as cleaning down terminals and ensuring anything a customer touches is wiped down," Mr de Bruin said.

"If the Government said all customers through the door had to be checked, we wouldn't see that as our role, we'd say, 'OK Government over to you.'"

Originally published as Retailer demands customer fever checks

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