By Sarah Krouse
Covid-19 testing regimes are taking hold at big companies as they try to get back to business and prevent outbreaks on the job.
Employees at Smithfield Foods Inc., Ford Motor Co. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. have begun reporting to tents and clinics or getting kits in the mail for coronavirus testing. The tests, combined with mandatory face masks and social-distancing practices on the job, are intended to protect staff and provide managers with a real-time sense of the virus's presence in their ranks.
Yet long waits for results -- up to 72 hours -- and an uncertain timetable for when rapid-result testing will reach most workplaces, mean that companies' grasp on workers' health remains imperfect at best, even with costly testing.
Employers are puzzling over whom to test, and how often, particularly given that tests typically cost $100 or more each. Companies should test enough to catch problems early, but not so often that logistics outweigh the benefits, said Raj Behal, chief quality officer at primary-care chain One Medical, which counted Google Inc. among its prepandemic clients. He advises clients to consider the size of a worker population, and whether workers must be near others on the job.
Businesses that stayed open during the pandemic mainly focused testing on sick workers and sites with outbreaks. Now more companies plan to regularly test asymptomatic workers, corporate medical consultants say.
Meat processor Smithfield Foods offers free coronavirus tests to all of its workers on a continuing, voluntary basis, and strongly encourages them to take advantage of the testing, a spokesman said -- an attempt to catch and quickly isolate infected personnel. Smithfield had to close plants in several states last month after outbreaks among its workers.
Testing is only one part of keeping a safe workplace, said Daniel Castillo, chief medical officer at Matrix Medical Network, a mobile health-care company conducting testing for symptomatic and asymptomatic workers at Tyson Foods Inc. Tyson has conducted mass testing at several plants, and in some cases more than half of those who tested positive had no symptoms.
"It's about mitigating risk. It has to be combined with personal protective equipment, distancing and behavioral changes," Dr. Castillo said.
Employers are limited in what they can ask about workers' health or living situations, though more are using apps and surveys to track symptoms -- introducing a tricky dance between privacy and workplace safety.
Charlottesville, Va.-based Tiger Fuel Co. will begin asking employees to respond to health questions via an app from health-care technology company Rimidi Inc.
"It goes exactly against the professional training all of us have had" to respect employee privacy, said Ryan Whitlock, Tiger Fuel's human-resources director, adding that health questions once deemed too intrusive are now necessary for workplace safety.
UnitedHealth and Microsoft Corp. jointly developed an app that checks worker symptoms and gives a go-ahead to report to work. The app, which Microsoft has said it plans to deploy for its U.S. workforce, tracks individuals' health and orders testing if warranted.
UnitedHealth, which has implemented the app with some of its employees, is now mailing at-home test kits to its nurses as they resume making house calls so that they can take tests if the app suggests they do so.
The moves toward testing span industries. Walmart Inc. Chief Executive Doug McMillon has said the retailer is pursuing testing for its employees, including tests that detect whether a person has been exposed to the virus.
Ford is one of several auto makers that has joined with medical centers to provide testing for symptomatic workers.
Verizon Communications Inc. will reopen offices in July without tests, citing privacy and test-accuracy concerns. Employees who wish to return will complete symptom checks and agree to abide by new worksite protocols; workplace capacity will be limited to 25%.
"Mandatory testing to come into the workplace is fraught with a whole other set of challenges," said Christy Pambianchi, Verizon's HR chief, adding that the company continues to evaluate its protocols and the merits of testing.
Many companies say the ideal would be rapid-result testing that could give employees an all-clear before entering work each day. Diagnostic-testing companies Abbott Laboratories and Cepheid both have machines that can deliver test results in 45 minutes or less, but they are primarily selling those devices to the health-care system.
Businesses and sports leagues have contacted those companies about accessing their systems, though the Food and Drug Administration instructed testing executives on an April call to prioritize health-care organizations, a person on the call said. After health care, the agency urged companies to focus on food-industry workers.
Regulators recently approved a different rapid diagnostic test -- one that detects parts of proteins on the virus -- that returns results in 15 minutes. The maker of the test, Quidel Corp., has already heard from Hollywood studios, a pro-wrestling league, and other businesses interested in using the test, Chief Executive Douglas Bryant said.
Life-sciences technology company 10x Genomics Inc. has been administering weekly Covid-19 diagnostic tests for about 180 research, manufacturing and other employees. Employees report to a tent at its Pleasanton, Calif., offices to be swabbed; they self-report results, which arrive two to three days later.
Testing is voluntary, said co-founder Ben Hindson, and the few employees who have declined aren't allowed to enter the office but can work remotely.
No employees have tested positive yet, but Mr. Hindson said the $200 tests are worth the price, adding that he plans to continue testing until a vaccine is available.
"When you think about it in the grand scheme of things, the benefit far outweighs that few hundred dollars by a huge factor," he said.
Hannah Yuan was one of the earliest 10x Genomics employees to be tested. The senior director of manufacturing said she was anxious at first, but the tests have quelled her concerns about safety at work.
"I'll just hold my breath and see how it goes,'" she said of her attitude before her first test.
Faculty and staff at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta who wish to return to campus, which reopened last week, must be tested for the virus. The university has detected three asymptomatic people with Covid-19 out of the 850 people tested so far.
Morehouse School of Medicine President Valerie Montgomery Rice said she is aware that tests offer a snapshot of a moment in time, but said the practice gives students and staff confidence in the institution.
"That action empowers you to know your status, to be able to protect yourself and your family," she said. "It also provides a level of confidence that you are contributing to the reintegration of society and our economy."
Write to Sarah Krouse at email@example.com