Companies are finding it hard and expensive to regularly test employees for COVID-19

California has approved emergency safety rules that are soon likely to require employers to provide coronavirus testing to all workers exposed on the job at no cost to employees.

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Rush University Medical Center staff members test people for the coronavirus at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site.

Rush University Medical Center staff members test people for the coronavirus at the hospital’s drive-thru testing site.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Brandon Hudgins works the main floor at Fleet Feet, a running-shoe store chain, for more than 30 hours a week.

He chats with customers, measures their feet and dashes in and out of the storage area to find shoes. Sometimes, customers drag their masks down while speaking. Others refuse to wear masks at all.

So he worries about COVID-19. With good reason. COVID hospitalizations and deaths are hitting record-shattering heights.

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic, though, many stores aren’t closing. And regular COVID-19 testing of those working remains patchy at best.

To help curb future outbreaks, Amazon, which also owns Whole Foods, built its own testing facilities, hired lab technicians and said it planned to conduct 50,000 daily tests across 650 sites.

To his store’s credit, Hudgins said his manager has instituted a locked-door policy, where employees determine which customers can enter. They sanitize the seating area between customers and administer regular employee temperature checks.

But there’s no talk of testing employees for COVID-19, according to Hudgins.

Fleet Feet did not respond to interview requests.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance to employers to include COVID testing and advised that people working in close quarters be tested periodically. The federal government doesn’t require employers to offer those tests, though.

But the board overseeing the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has approvedemergency safety rulesthat are soon likely to require the state’s employers to provide coronavirus testing to all workers exposed to an outbreak on the job at no cost to the employees. Testing must be repeated a week later, followed by periodic testing.

California would be the first state to mandate this, though the regulation doesn’t apply to routine testing of employees. That is up to individual businesses.

Across the nation, workplaces have been the source of major coronavirus outbreaks:meat-processing plants,grocery stores,farms,schools,Amazon warehouses— largely among the so-called essential workers who bear the brunt of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspects workplaces based on workers’ complaints — more than 40,000 of them related to COVID-19 have been filed with the agency.

Workers “have every right to be concerned,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco. “They are operating in a fog. There is little economic incentive for corporations to figure out who has COVID at what sites.”

Waiting for symptoms to emerge before testing is ill-considered, Chin-Hong said, because people can exhibit no symptoms but still spread the virus. The CDC has found that, among people with active infections, 44% reported no symptoms.

Yet testing alone cannot protect employees. Chin-Hong said it’s important to enforce safety guidelines like social distancing and wearing face masks and be transparent with workers when someone gets sick.

Under pressure from labor groups, Amazon recently reported that almost 20,000 employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19. To help curb future outbreaks, the online retailing giant, which also owns Whole Foods, built its own testing facilities, hired lab technicians and said it planned to conduct 50,000 daily tests across 650 sites.

The National Football Leaguetests players and other essential workers daily. An NFL spokesperson said the league conducts 40,000 to 45,000 tests a week through New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories, though both organizations declined to say what that costs.Reportsover the summer estimated the season’s testing program would cost about $75 million.

Not all companies, particularly those not in the limelight, have the interest — or money — to regularly test workers.

“It depends on the company how much they care,” said Gary Glader, president of Horton Safety Consultants in Orland Park.

Horton works with dozens of companies in manufacturing, construction and transportation to write exposure control plans to limit the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and avoid OSHA citations.

“Some companies could care less about their people, never have,” Horton said.

IGeneX, a diagnostic testing company in Milpitas, California, gets around 15 calls a day from companies across the country inquiring about its employer testing program. The lab works with about 100 employers — from 10-person outfits to two pro sports teams — mainly in the Bay Area. IGeneX tests its own workers every other week.

One client is Tarana Wireless, a nearby telecommunications company that needs about 30 employees in the office at a time to operate equipment. In addition to monthly COVID tests, the building also gets cleaned every two hours, and masks are mandatory.

“It’s definitely a burden,” said Amy Beck, the company’s director of human resources. “We are venture-backed and have taken pay cuts to make our money extend longer. But we do this to make everyone feel safe. We don’t have unlimited resources.”

Cheaper, rapid options like Abbott’s antigen test, touted by the Trump administration, have come under fire for being inaccurate.

For those going in to work, Chin-Hong recommends that companies test employees once a week with PCR tests or twice a week with the less-sensitive antigen tests.

Ideally, Chin-Hong said, public health departments would work directly with employers to administer COVID testing and quash potential outbreaks. But, as KHN has reported, these agencies are chronically underfunded and overworked. Free community testing sites can sometimes take days to weeks to return results,bogged down by extreme demandat commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp and supply chain problems.

Hudgins, who gets his health insurance through North Carolina’s state exchange, tries to get a monthly COVID test at CVS on his own time. But occasionally his insurance — which requires certain criteria to qualify — has declined to pay for it, he said.

“Being in the service industry in a state where numbers are ridiculously high,” he said, “I see volumes of people every day, and I think getting tested is the smart and considerate thing to do.”

Kaiser Health News, a non-profit health newsroom, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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