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Coronavirus testing lab furloughing workers despite backlog of 115,000 COVID-19 tests

The company has seen a 40% drop in its overall testing due to shelter-at-home measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to a spokesman.

A technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York’s Long Island. AP Photo/John Minchillo

Employees at Quest Diagnostics are being asked to voluntarily go on furlough, despite the publicly traded medical testing company acknowledging Wednesday its labs were facing a backlog of at least 115,000 COVID-19 tests.

Furloughs will impact employees throughout the company, which Quest spokesman Dennis Moynihan said has seen a 40% drop in overall testing in the past two weeks.

In a letter obtained by the Sun-Times, workers in Quest’s Great Midwest Region were given “the opportunity to express an interest in volunteering to be part of the furlough.”

That includes employees working at the 12 facilities that are currently testing for the coronavirus, including a laboratory in northwest suburban Wood Dale. Quest also has a diagnostic lab in Schaumburg and 12 testing locations across the state, according to the company’s website.

In addition to testing for COVID-19, the company also conducts and analyzes a wide array of medical tests for physicians and hospitals, as well as for the public.

Moynihan didn’t say what action the company will take if employees don’t choose to voluntarily go on furlough, and he said there was “no target” for how many employees they were hoping would take time off.

The furloughs wouldn’t impact the company’s ability to conduct coronavirus testing, Moynihan said, saying: “In fact, we have cross trained many lab employees to ensure we can perform COVID-19 testing around the clock.”

The decision to lay off workers comes after Quest and other major commercial labs emerged as the tip of the testing spear as President Donald Trump’s administration looked to the private sector to bolster the nation’s testing capacity in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus by identifying those who had been infected.

On March 4, Vice President Mike Pence stood with Quest Labs CEO Steve Rusckowski and other industry executives and said the commercial labs were prepared to “speed the availability of tests to the broader American public.”

Though testing has expanded nationwide, Quest acknowledged Wednesday it had a logjam of untested specimens.

Despite running 400,000 tests and having the capacity to process 30,000 a day, the company was still facing a backlog of 115,000 tests — down from 160,000 on March 25. On Wednesday, the company was taking an average of four to five days to process a test, the company said.

Moynihan said the 40% drop in overall testing by the company was due to a decrease in physician office visits, elective surgeries and employment testing he attributed to “social distancing and shelter-in-place measures that were instituted to combat the spread of COVID-19.” He said the demand for COVID-19 tests would not be enough to offset the decline.

Matthew Hamlin, vice president and general manager of Quest’s Great Midwest Region, emailed workers he manages Thursday and said furloughs “may be a good option for some employees given the current challenging circumstances.”

“Furlough volunteers will maintain their positions with Quest Diagnostics with the intent to recall employees to their position after the COVID-19 crisis is past,” Hamlin wrote.

He said employees could be out of work for between two and 12 weeks, depending on the company’s “future business.”

Hamlin also said employees would retain their healthcare benefits and told workers they could potentially receive state unemployment benefits and money through the federal coronavirus relief package.

Hamlin’s email asked employees to inform management of their decision by April 13, the date the company said employees would be furloughed.

“We consider these actions both temporary and necessary to manage the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moynihan said.