As companies plan for 2021, they need to do so with the possibility of COVID-19 remaining a concern for much of the year. With this potential in mind, employers need to have a comprehensive plan to protect their workforce and ensure their employees, customers and communities feel and remain safe.
To address these challenges, employers have implemented a range of measures from standard best practices — such as mandated masks and social distancing where possible — to health screening programs, including temperature checks and wellness questionnaires. While these steps are a good start, many employers are choosing to supplement them with PCR testing to detect the active virus that causes COVID-19. With the expanded availability and options for active virus testing, employers can now gain more control over creating a safe workplace and reducing the risk of outbreak.
However, the decision to do testing comes with many questions for employers: whom to test, when to test, how frequently to retest, and how to manage it all. Answering these questions of logistics and compliance can be overwhelming for employers, particularly since there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, leading companies are partnering with an expert COVID-19 testing administrator that can design a program to meet their unique needs and goals — whether for testing symptomatic employees, re-entry screening, or ongoing proactive screening.
What is the Best Approach?
There are three common approaches to occupational health COVID-19 testing, each with their advantages and limitations:
- At-home testing where test kits are sent directly to employees for self-collection through either saliva or anterior nasal swab. Relative to other options, at-home testing minimizes the administrative burden on the employer. In addition, the flexibility of at-home testing makes it a favorable solution for testing symptomatic employees or those with potential contact with infected employees as well as remote employees.
- Bulk test kits sent to employers for them to distribute to employees as needed. Employers who opt for bulk kits over at-home testing generally do so to save money and/or to save time, as the day and shipping costs necessary to send a kit to an employee’s home are eliminated.
- Onsite testing at the workplace. Employers with a large number of employees to be tested at once, either upon re-entry or for ongoing screening, often find onsite testing to be an efficient option. Third-party medical technicians can be used to handle sample collection.
Frequently, employers are using a combination of these options to do continual retesting on certain employee populations that have high contact with others. Examples include security guards, janitorial staff, food service staff — anyone who is regularly exposed to employees across the workplace.
Regardless of the testing options selected, you should ensure that your program is consistent with several key principles:
- High quality tests with proven accuracy and fast turnaround time.
- Extensive reporting for employers to inform their strategies going forward.
- Ease of use for the employee.
- Compliance with federal and state privacy and employment regulations.
Future Developments in COVID-19 Testing
Given the evolving nature of testing, access to new tests as they become available is another important consideration. One area to watch in 2021 is the development of rapid testing where results can be generated in 15 to 30 minutes. Unlike traditional active virus testing, newer rapid tests detect the presence of proteins in the virus known as antigens. The fast turnaround time and relative low cost of these tests hold great promise, but questions remain about their proper application in the workplace given their lower accuracy than lab-based PCR testing.
Currently, rapid tests with FDA emergency use authorization have been authorized for symptomatic testing; they perform best in the early stages of infection when viral load is generally highest. As the accuracy of rapid testing improves, employers can feel more comfortable incorporating them into their health screening programs, either as a standalone testing option, or, more likely, in combination with molecular PCR active virus testing.
While no method is fail-safe, a more comprehensive testing program coupled with standard best practices can offer employers a better chance of keeping the workplace safe.
Adjusting to How We Now Work and Hire
Beyond the traditional workplace, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for an expanded view of safety in the hiring process itself. In 2020, many companies have expanded on existing “Work from Anywhere” policies or have adopted them for the first time. With the opportunity to now recruit top talent from a wider geographic footprint, it is likely we will see many companies continue these policies, even when the pandemic begins to subside.
With this trend, companies are more likely to hire individuals that they may never physically meet, from the interview process through the entire employee lifecycle. In response, employers should implement security measures that guard against stolen identities and impersonation to safeguard the security of their systems and confidential information.
Today, an effective background screening program begins with identity verification. Using a smartphone, the candidate’s government-issued identification is validated for authenticity and a match is established between the person and the identification presented. This is an essential practice that should be applied to all hiring, but particularly in cases where there is no physical contact.
More than ever, employers have been thrust into the role of guardians of safety and trust. An effective end-to-end COVID-19 testing program and an identity verification solution can help relieve anxiety, increase safety and build trust throughout your workplace and community.
About the Author
Peter Lehmann is the chief strategy officer at Sterling, a background and identity services provider.