How A COVID-19 Test Can (And Can’t) Protect You At Work

April 29, 2020
Drive-Through Coroinavirus Testing Auraria CanpusDrive-Through Coroinavirus Testing Auraria CanpusHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Front-line health care workers check in people for drive-through coronavirus tests at the Auraria Campus in Denver on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. The mobile facility is partnership between King Soopers and the Colorado State Emergency Operations Center.

Amy Hicks has an easier time than most testing her employees for the novel coronavirus. 

Hicks owns and operates Rocky Mountain Labs, a clinical laboratory which completes medical tests for a range of businesses and individuals. It’s now one of the increasing numbers of Colorado laboratories that test people for the new coronavirus.

That means Hicks can quickly and easily test her 15 employees. She said that’s provided security for her lab technicians and phlebotomists, who have to work in close proximity with each other and patients.

Still, Hicks doesn’t know if she is making the most of the advantage. 

“We haven't had a formal plan,” she said. “It's been basically like, ‘Hey, do you want to be tested? OK, let's test you.’”

Other businesses in Colorado are starting to figure out those kinds of plans as sectors of the economy begin to reopen. Enormous employers like Amazon have announced efforts to frequently test their all employees.

Dr. David Beuther, chief medical information officer for National Jewish Health in Denver, said dozens of Colorado businesses have approached the respiratory hospital to help their testing efforts. He declined to identify the companies.

Public health experts and think tanks have called for widespread testing to help assure people it's safe to restart businesses. Employers could find out if the virus is spreading among their workforce. Customers could be assured workers at a shop or restaurant aren’t contagious. 

While the advantages are clear, most businesses and employees are still just figuring things out. Here’s a quick guide to how tests can — and can’t — protect a workplace.

Are these tests even available? How much would they cost? 

Tests remain a limited commodity in Colorado. 

State health officials estimate labs across the state could analyze 10,000 diagnostic tests per day, but they usually manage to complete less than a quarter of that number. That’s largely due to a lack of supplies. Hospitals and labs just don’t have the necessary gloves, gowns, swabs and other materials.

Because of the shortages, most tests have been reserved for frontline workers and people who show the most life-threatening symptoms. The results of the policy can be seen in Colorado’s positive testing rate, which sits above 20 percent according to the COVID Tracking Project. The relatively high percentage worries epidemiologists because it means doctors are only testing people who are already likely to have the disease. People with more mild symptoms go unnoticed and could spread the pathogen further. 

Individuals or businesses can pay for greater access to testing, though. 

National Jewish Health offers an antibody test to individuals for $94.  Rocky Mountain Lab charges $85 for a similar test. While questions remain about overall accuracy, both labs have struggled to meet demand in Metro Denver.

“Everybody wants to know whether that mild illness that they had in February was COVID-19,” said Beuther.

What kind of COVID-19 tests are out there? 

There are currently two kinds of COVID-19 tests: diagnostic tests and antibody blood tests. 

Diagnostic tests, also known as PCR tests, are the most common and accurate way to detect a current infection. They work by identifying genetic material from the virus in the back of the nose or throat. That’s why you’ll often see medical workers collecting material for PCR tests with long nasal swabs. 

Antibody tests aren’t as good at catching an early infection but can reveal if someone likely had COVID-19 in the past. The tests detect the presence of antibodies, which are proteins the immune system creates in response to a certain virus, but lax oversight has prompted concerns about their reliability.

But each of the tests has its own advantages.

Diagnostic tests are really good at catching people who might be contagious and need to isolate themselves to stop the spread of the disease. Serological tests — the ones that test for antibodies — can help public health officials or companies understand how the virus has behaved in the past.

Can an antibody test tell someone they’re immune to COVID-19? 

Nope. 

National Jewish Health now offers serology tests to both businesses and individuals on a first-come-first-serve basis. Beuther said people should all know the tests don’t yet prove immunity to the virus.

“We would all like to believe if you have an antibody response, you’re less likely to be sick again,” he said. “We just really don’t know if that’s true.”

Researchers are now trying to understand if people can be reinfected with COVID-19

How can tests be used to protect the workplace?

While antibody tests can’t prove immunity, Beuther said they still could help businesses and workers reduce the odds of an outbreak, especially if used together with diagnostic tests.  Antibody tests could show who might have had the disease. Targeted diagnostic tests could show who has the disease and who should be quarantined at home.

For example, blood tests could reveal whether cafeteria workers have antibodies connected to a COVID-19 immune response. The company could then focus their attention on employees who have eaten in that specific area, testing them for the disease and quarantining those who have it. 

Are any workers demanding more testing? 

The JBS meat plant in Greeley provides the clearest example in Colorado. The plant reopened Friday after a two-week state-ordered shut down due to a widespread outbreak among workers inside the plant. More than 100 workers tested positive. Officially, four died. Union officials say a fifth employee has also died.

The plant reopened without testing all of its employees, but now says it will offer free tests to any employee who shows symptoms. The testing plan continues to be a point of contention between the company and the union.

Can employers legally set up a testing program for their employees? 

Yes, but it’s tricky. 

“If it's 100 percent voluntary and there's no coercion, OK,” said Bryan Kuhn, a Denver-based employment lawyer.

He said the main danger with private testing programs is the potential to violate state and federal laws protecting personal medical information from employers. That means someone's boss couldn’t legally demand their COVID-19 test results. 

If workers agree to share their test results, he said employers should explain exactly how they’ll use the information. Employees should have confidence they won’t be fired or moved to a less favorable position based on their results.

What if an employee tests positive or shows symptoms? Does he or she get paid sick leave? 

It depends. 

Colorado’s emergency health orders require certain employers up to two weeks of sick leave at two-thirds of an employee’s normal pay. The rule applies to sectors like food service, hospitality and child care. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 can receive the benefit, as can anyone who shows symptoms or hasn’t received test results. 

Recent federal legislation provides some additional protection. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employers with fewer than 500 employees must offer two weeks paid time off for anyone home due to COVID-19. That includes employees who test positive for the disease, show symptoms or need to be home to care for someone under a quarantine order or self-isolation. Employers receive tax credits to offset the cost.

The law doesn’t apply to bigger companies, which federal officials say can afford to offer leave on their own dime.

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