COVID-19 Detection Dogs made their debut as Miami Heat fans returned to AmericanAirlines Arena yesterday (Thursday), with the NBA basketball team maintaining their deployment is only one element of their venue safety strategy.

The Heat last week announced they would welcome around 1,500 season-ticket holders and ahead of yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers released a COVID-19 safety guide. Included in these guidelines were the use of COVID-19 Detection Dogs.

Fans are scanned by the dogs when they arrive at AmericanAirlines Arena and have to take part in a mandatory health screening questionnaire. If a dog detects the virus, the fan and those in their travel party were not allowed to enter the arena, with ticket refunds given.

Those not comfortable with being screened by a dog have an alternative testing option, but the Heat said this could take up to 45 minutes to conduct. Speaking ahead of the game, Miami Heat’s executive vice-president for business strategy, Matthew Jafarian, said the team had previously trialled the dogs on a smaller scale to screen personnel and “learned a lot during that time.”

Jafarian told CNN: “During (last year’s) NBA bubble is really when we started researching, in earnest, how we could bring back fans safely into the arena. We looked at a variety of options. There were Breathalyzer tests that we looked at. We looked at traditional diagnostic tests, like rapid antigen and PCR tests. And we thought through operationally how we could administer that to hundreds and thousands of people coming into the building.”

Jafarian added that around that same time, some early studies were being published on the use of dogs to detect COVID-19. While the research is yet to be fully approved, Jafarian said he found the studies “compelling” because they reached similar results. He said the Heat is taking its dog program “very slowly” until it learns more, with the venture designed to complement the wider guidelines, which are available here.

Jafarian said the Heat decided to take the plan forward after being approached by a new company, SNIFF, with an offer to use detection dogs in the arena. SNIFF has partnered with Global K9 Protection Group to drive forward its project.

Michael Larkin, vice-president of commercial services at the Global K9 Protection Group, said: “It’s important for people to understand that this technology and this solution is evolving, and it doesn’t replace going to a doctor or a PCR test.

“The dog is designed to be an initial human body screening tool, but if there was a positive indication, our first recommendation would be go seek professional medical attention and get a PCR test.”

Studies on how reliable dogs are in detecting COVID-19 infections remain ongoing. “I think it’s so new and novel that we have yet to determine how effective it is and how reliable the canines are at detecting these type of things,” said Dr. Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“We’re just such on the front edge of it. But it is very exciting to see that we could have another tool in detecting coronavirus.”

Image: DXR/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size