Workplace Testing And Contact Tracing: How Employers Can Fight The Coronavirus In “The New Normal”

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As nationwide lockdown restrictions are eased and more people return to work, prioritizing workers’ health and safety should be high on every employer’s agenda. Preventing the spread of coronavirus and keeping employees safe, however, will require more than just social distancing and proper hygiene.

Given what we now know about coronaviruses and how they can be transmitted, knowing where an infected employee has been and who they may have had contact with through proper tracing protocols is critical in determining who needs to be isolated and tested.

Though keeping track of hundreds or even thousands of employees may seem daunting, companies can use existing technology to make the task easier.

Todd Lohr, a digital enablement leader at KPMG, says that companies can leverage managed devices or third-party applications to get GPS data to determine which employees attended workplace activities on any given day. Companies can also capture location data of their office-based staff through laptops connected to a virtual private network (VPN).

Many companies also now use ID badges equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology which can help keep track of whoever is wearing them. Companies can place beacons — or small, wireless transmitters — in strategic locations throughout the premises to communicate with these badges. Similarly, wristbands or devices that may be worn around the neck or attached to a belt can also help with contact tracing.

Enlightened, a Silicon Valley-based company, produces Bluetooth-enabled sensors that attach to LEDs to provide location-based tracking to monitor employees’ movements. This can be done either through ID badges equipped with Bluetooth beacons or a smartphone-based app that can create signals.

There are, of course, some privacy and legal concerns when collecting and storing data in this manner. Companies must find the right balance between creating a safe environment and using the technology that is available to them. Processes must also be in place to maintain the privacy of their employees.

Meanwhile, businesses have also faced pressure from groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to provide proper testing for their employees.

After facing criticism for the way it initially responded to the pandemic, Tyson Foods began testing its employees en masse in April of 2020. Around 40,000 employees — one-third of its workforce — had already been tested.

The company found high rates of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission among its employees. Nearly 900 workers at a pork facility in Logansport, Indiana tested positive, forcing the plant to shut down for two weeks.

The Tyson Foods issue and a string of other reported incidents regarding coronavirus infections among workers have helped raise awareness about the role that proper testing plays in fighting the pandemic, but testing shortages and the lack of uniform standards for workplace testing have complicated the path forward.

A poll of 40 large employers conducted by the Pacific Business Group on Health (PBGH) in June of 2020 found that just 6% plan to provide on-site testing. 33% would not require testing for employees returning to work, while 56% are undecided. Privacy and costs were among the respondents’ top concerns.

Though some businesses have been able to ramp up testing for their workers, it remains a challenge in other high-risk workplaces, particularly at low-profit nursing homes.

Len Russ, the administrator of Bayberry Care Center in New Rochelle, New York, says that employees are required to undergo testing once a week under phase two reopening guidelines, but testing costs are “astronomical.” 

Joel Smith, a health services administrator at BayView in Seattle, says that testing costs around $30,000 a month. Though Medicare and Medicaid largely cover testing for residents, this isn’t the case for staff.

Congress did enact a law that requires free cost-sharing for COVID-19 tests in March of 2020. However, more focus is needed on nursing homes, which are believed to be the site of at least 40% of coronavirus deaths in the US. With no signs of the pandemic abating anytime soon, lawmakers need to act fast.