We may as well kick off Friday the 13th with some less than stellar news. Another of the countermeasures being mandated by governments around the nation to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus may not be doing much to “flatten the curve” after all. Many places, including New York City and Chicago, have declared that stores, restaurants and bars must “screen” customers by taking their temperature and asking them some questions about their recent contacts and travels before allowing them entrance.

I’ve been through that process at least three times in the past month or two myself. Right off the bat, I had questions about the efficacy of having government-mandated medical procedures performed by people whose educational background led them to be bartenders and waiters. (That’s not a knock against either profession, by the way.) I’m just saying that if you want your sink repaired, you call a plumber. But even if the screening is being performed flawlessly, it turns out that we could be wasting our time anyway.

A new study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine strongly suggests that this method of screening is virtually ineffective in far too many cases. They tracked the testing of almost 2,000 Marine Corps recruits who were entering basic training. All were given temperature checks and grilled about whether or not they may have come in contact with any infected individuals. All but a handful of the recruits who went on to test positive after a nasal swab were unaware of having been exposed and had normal body temperatures. In other words, nearly all of them were asymptomatic carriers who appeared otherwise quite healthy and the screening methods being used only identified a small percentage of them. (CBS New York)

The discouraging news comes from a just-published study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers from the Navy and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai tested, followed and quarantined under close supervision nearly 2,000 new Marine Corps recruits before and at the start of basic training.

Few infected recruits had symptoms before a nasal swab test diagnosed them with coronavirus, despite daily temperature and symptom screening.

“This suggests that relying on symptom screening and temperature checks alone, it’s not very effective in finding infected individuals. All of the infected individuals were found by scheduled tests that were done independent of the presence of symptoms or elevated temperature,” said Dr. Stuart Sealfon of the Icahn School of Medicine.

These results appear to demonstrate that one of the “blessings” of the novel coronavirus is actually something of a curse. We’ve seen repeatedly that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is very low, perhaps less than one percent. And it appears to be dropping. And among the other 99% of those who become infected, many are virtually unaffected by the virus, with some shaking it off without even being aware that they had it.

But that appears to be the “curse” portion of the situation. People who experience zero symptoms don’t know that they have it so they don’t report anything when questioned. And if the person who exposed them was similarly asymptomatic, they wouldn’t know if they’d come in contact with anyone who was ill. When you add to that the likelihood that asymptomatic patients probably aren’t running a temperature, this entire screening method sort of goes out the window, doesn’t it?

It’s starting to feel as if many of these new rituals we’re being forced to adopt in response to the pandemic are actually little more than feel-good measures intended to bolster people’s confidence without really delivering much in the way of effectively combatting the disease. The same can probably be said about facemasks. Even the CDC admits that cloth facemasks are of limited use and will only prevent transmission in a relatively low number of instances.

Sure, it’s easy enough for some of you to say, ‘but these policies will at least catch some of the people who are infected, so that’s better than nothing, right?’ I’m not so sure about that. The temperature checks and screening questions are generally being used at places where larger numbers of people are gathering or going in and out. What if you’re only catching half of the infected people? It really only takes one person in a crowded environment to kick off a sizable spike. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be free to wear masks and go through screening if they believe it’s beneficial. It’s just that I worry about government mandates for all of these changes if they’re just going to wind up being essentially window-dressing and nothing more.