COVID-Sniffing Dogs Will Screen Fans at Miami Heat Games—Here’s What to Know

Other accommodations will be made for fans who are allergic or scared of dogs.

Like everything else, sporting events have been thrown into turmoil by the COVID-19 pandemic. Games have been cancelled and postponed, and fans haven't been allowed in many stadiums for several months. (Fan attendance across the country depends on a number of factors, including local coronavirus guidelines, which vary by state.)

In Florida, the Miami Heat have announced they'll use coronavirus-sniffing dogs at American Airlines Arena to screen fans who want to attend their games, starting this week. According to NBC Sports, the Heat have been working on the plan for months, and the dogs have had something of a trial run at games where a small number of guests—mainly friends and family of players and staff—have been in attendance.

So, how exactly will the dogs sniff out COVID infections? Before Heat games, fans will be ushered through a designated screening area when they arrive. The detection dogs will walk past each fan, and if they keep moving, the fan is deemed to be safe. But if the dog sits down, that means it detects the coronavirus, and the fan won't be admitted into the arena. Anybody who is allergic to or scared of dogs will be able to take a rapid antigen test instead, which can be processed in less than 45 minutes.

In addition to the coronavirus-sniffing dogs, the arena will also have attendees fill out a mandatory health-screening questionnaire, enforce mask-wearing at all times inside the venue, and will only sell water and soda—via cashless transactions—during events. If a fan begins to feel ill during a game, isolation rooms will be available.

Overall, the presence of detection dogs isn't exactly a new thing at any large-scale venue, including NBA games. Matthew Jafarian, the Heat's executive vice president for business strategy, told NBC Sports the arena's been using them for years to detect explosives, as have other large-scale venues. They're also a mainstay of airports and are regularly seen with police officers or security guards.

But when COVID-19 hit, canines around the world (and their advanced sense of smell) were quickly put to work to help in the fight against the coronavirus—and with good reason. Dogs have up to 300 million smell receptors, while humans only have about 6 million. This means dogs can detect a huge number of scents that humans can't.

Because of this keen sense of smell, researchers in several countries are training dogs to detect the coronavirus with a view to using them in their pandemic efforts. A group of researchers in France, led by veterinary scientist Dominique Grandjean at the National Veterinary School of Alfort near Paris, shared their work on the preprint server bioRxiv in June. For their study, the researchers trained eight dogs to detect COVID-19 in 198 sweat samples, around half of which were from people with the disease. When the positive samples were mixed with negative samples, the dogs identified the positive samples 83% to 100% of the time.

Another study published in July in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases sought to determine how effective dogs were at sniffing out COVID-19 in saliva or tracheobronchial secretions. The research team, led by veterinary neurologist Holger Volk at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover in Germany, presented eight trained dogs with samples taken from the mouths and windpipes of seven people hospitalized with COVID-19, plus seven uninfected people. The trial identified 83% of positive cases and 96% of negative ones.

And in July 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported that their own experimental trials also yielded positive results: When police sniffer dogs were presented with sweat samples from both COVID-19 patients and healthy participants, the dogs correctly detected the coronavirus with 92% accuracy, as reported by The National, a news source for the UAE and Middle East. Airports in Dubai and Helsinki, Finland have also reportedly begun using COVID-sniffer dogs in airports.

These early findings are interesting, but it's important to remember that the trials are very small, and some have not yet been peer-reviewed or published. This means it could be a while before we know for sure whether dogs can really become a force for change in the fight against COVID-19—but it's still promising news as we continue to fight the coronavirus.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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