As we start the long process of bringing America back to work, we are facing the reality that the conditions that enabled outbreaks to occur across the world remain virtually the same. The vast majority of the population is susceptible to contracting COVID-19, for which we have yet to find an effective cure or method of prevention.
Every CEO will need to make decisions about the scale, speed and strategy to resume full operations safely for employees. In this new normal, every employer has to assume that they will face COVID-19 cases in the workforce. No strategy can completely eliminate the risk of infection, but will rather need to minimize the risk that the workplace will be the context for the spread of the virus. Drawing on the experiences from countries around the world, we have two tools at our disposal to minimize the risk of workplace transmission.
The first is the reduction of social connectivity within the workplace. These are the operational changes around social distancing, work from home, physical modifications, and simple health screenings.
The second is the use of active testing. Given that the majority of COVID-19 transmissions occur from asymptomatic carriers, the most important thing we can do in the workplace is to use testing to detect those carriers early. By detecting COVID-19 cases as early as possible and immediately following up, we can more effectively minimize the spread of the disease and avoid having early cases become outbreaks.
Employer-driven testing and containment procedures will be critical to successful return to work efforts. This testing strategy will rely on three key elements:
Nationally scaled testing capacity
We will need to dramatically increase testing volume while maintaining fast (24 hr) turnaround times. America started its COVID-19 crisis with a deep deficit in testing capacity; now, employers will need to make testing abundantly available to their workforce for employees to have access before re-entry, on a regular schedule (depending on job function exposure), and aggressively in the case of exposure. We will need a 5x-10x increase in our testing volume on a sustained basis. This will not occur through the summation of many small labs, but rather through the scale-up of several massive, automated, high-throughput regional labs across the country.
Take testing out of the health system and into the workplace
COVID-19 cases will be unavoidable. The single most important thing we can do is to intercept cases as early as possible and isolate them before they become outbreaks. The most challenging attribute of COVID-19 spread is the apparently high proportion of transmissions that originate from asymptomatic carriers. Given that, we will need to make testing abundantly accessible in the workplace. If we want to be testing employees who have the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 (due to a variety of factors ranging from job function, spouses, children, etc…), it will be imperative to make testing conveniently accessible at the workplace such that an employee can have a sample collected using less than five minutes of her time.
Rapid link from test results to workplace protocols
Once a positive is diagnosed in a population, employers will need to establish an immediate and lossless link between test results and isolation and workplace safety protocols to diminish the impact of an infection. The standard process of a lab releasing a result to a clinician, who then communicates to the patient, who then must inform their employer will not work reliably for others in the workplace. Employers will need an employee-consented direct link that enables a lab to immediately report a positive diagnosis to HR systems. This is the same reporting we perform to local authorities for public health purposes. Here, the workplace is the primary vector for spread. By establishing a direct connection to the testing labs covering a workforce, employers can dramatically speed their response time to new cases, before those cases have had a chance to spread the virus to other co-workers and family members.
We are in the early innings of a long process as we attempt to bring the country back to work. By now, it is clear that a silver bullet solution is unlikely in the short term. The single best shot we have is to make testing as accessible as we can, so everyone returning feels as safe as possible in the new reality.
For more information on Color’s Workforce Testing Program, visit us here.