As an independent news outlet, we enjoy the privilege of covering issues that bigger outlets won’t. At Los Angeleno, we write about people, places and idiosyncrasies with local impact and beyond. Your support is vital for us to continue doing so.
Late last year — long before “Zoom fatigue” and arguing with anti-maskers became everyday woes — a still-unnamed viral pneumonia was quietly spreading in cities worldwide. With the arrival of the new year, local hospitals and clinics saw a surge in patients complaining of respiratory ailments. Researchers now estimate that the coronavirus spread across Los Angeles as early as December, presenting to unsuspecting residents as nothing more than a nasty flu.
One of those first people to contract the virus in Southern California was Pouya Hashemi, a businessman based out of Newport Beach. After returning from a vacation to Hawaii in January, Hashemi started experiencing symptoms which he attributed to the flu or maybe strep throat. Months later, he discovered through an antibody test that the novel coronavirus had caused his illness.
Hashemi decided to pivot the interactive technology company he founded 12 years ago, spinTouch, to create RapidScreen: an automated, contactless thermal-imaging device that reads a person’s body temperature and uses face-scanning technology to detect whether or not they are wearing a face mask.
Since its release, Hashemi’s device has been used by the NFL, U.S. Navy, Johnson & Johnson, Los Angeles World Airports, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and a variety of school districts, cities and counties across the U.S. and Canada. RapidScreen is also undergoing a pilot program with the City of Los Angeles.
We spoke with Hashemi about his experience as one of the Southland’s first COVID-19 cases and how he hopes RapidScreen will help combat the spread of the virus.
What was it like being sick with COVID?
I couldn’t even drink water without excruciating pain. I went to urgent care, they tested for the flu, they tested for strep, and they basically said, “No,” and it came back negative. “It’s probably some bug, some kind of cold or something.” And they didn’t really prescribe me much of anything. Eventually — luckily — I got over that. About two months ago, I decided, “Hey, you know, let’s do an antibody test to see if that thing that I had a while ago was actually COVID.” And it came back positive.
It was a tough illness. It was so bad. I usually work through it when I get a cold: I still send out emails, I still do some type of work. This one was like — I couldn’t even keep any level of concentration. It was almost like being high, but not in a good way. Like being high in a really, really bad way.
After I recovered, then COVID issues started to set in for the economy. … It was a lot of days of just looking at my sales guy. He was just begging to talk to someone — no one was picking up their phones. Everybody was at home. No one was calling us. It was like, “Wow, what are we going to do? This is horrible for our two businesses,” because both require a gathering of some kind. And nobody was doing that.
And then, at that time, I looked around online and saw … certain mandates starting to happen in different countries, that temperature screenings were kind of a big thing.
There was definitely some limitations with that.
When you have a person screening people, it’s hard to still have social distancing. It’s hard to not spread the virus. And that person needs to take breaks, they need to go to the bathroom, but that door still stays open. So it was coming up with the concept of a way to have some sort of a station out where people can still feel confident coming back into the workforce, without a lot of hesitation of whether their co-workers potentially have a high fever and they don’t know it.
Have you seen it in action? Meaning, have you seen the technology really catch fevers?
We’ve done a lot of testing on our side with, like, blow-dryers and hot water. Obviously, it’s hard to test it if you don’t have someone infected, so we have to simulate that. And it does catch it. We do have a system in place on our new models that are actually sending out alerts — when there is a high temp, it sends it out as an email or a text.
It’s also somewhat of a deterrent. People that have a fever, they will probably know it. It shouldn’t be a shock if you have a 102-degree fever, right? It’s kind of like having a gun and going through a metal detector. You’re probably gonna avoid it.
The question that always comes up with this type of technology is security. What do you say when people ask about that?
It’s got a lot of different capabilities. As far as privacy, there’s a lot of levels that can be turned off or on. It really depends on the company and their guidelines. We try and send it out very limited in regards to what it’s storing as far as pictures, names, temperatures, etc. It’s very, very anonymous.
Now, if the client wants to enable the picture-taking for each scan, if they want to do facial recognition — that’s really up to them. It’s kind of like getting an iPad. The iPad doesn’t have any personal information on it already. It doesn’t [break any laws], but it can be used maliciously for sure. But every state has got its own certain mandates, like HIPAA violations and rules. And a lot of agencies have relaxed the rules pretty substantially from when COVID started, so privacy is now less looked at, and it’s more in favor of being able to contact-trace.
Is there a setting for masks?
Absolutely. You can turn that on and off. There’s a lot of offices now that require all their employees to wear masks, so they set it right into the front of the office. As soon as they walk in, it says, “Hey, please remember to wear a mask.”
Have you seen this technology used in other cities? And what did that look like?
Definitely, it’s something that we’re seeing more and more interest in all over the nation. You know, before all this, I would be probably happy with anywhere between 10-15 leads or opportunities per month from new clients. We’re now getting about 50 inquiries a day. It’s like hundreds, hundreds and hundreds a week. They’re just pouring in, everything from government agencies to big top brands.
What’s the cost of this type of technology?
We have two models that recently launched, and the pricing is roughly $3,000 per unit, and on the surface, that kind of sounds expensive. But the alternative for these companies to stay open [is] they have to hire. A lot of them have to hire a person or an agency or a registered nurse or an EMT worker, someone to sit there and scan people as they come in and do the login process. They’re paying anywhere from $45 an hour all the way up to $150 an hour, and what that equates to is about $3,000 every two weeks. So getting these devices pays for itself in under two weeks, with a lot more functionality.
Especially as someone who has recovered from COVID-19, what’s your greatest hope for this technology in helping people?
You can’t just sit back and wait for this cure to come out because we’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t look like this thing’s going away anytime soon. So the hope is to allow businesses to go back safely, to open responsibly as well as to do it in a cost-effective manner.
I’ll give you a story. There was a client that came to us and said, “Hey, we were using an agency, and we kept getting outbreaks every couple weeks, and we would screen everyone. We didn’t know where it was coming from. We finally contact-traced it back to the personnel screening everyone. They were asymptomatic.”