Can Employers Cost-Effectively Test Employees for COVID-19?

October 22, 2020 | Employer Health Services Department

First things first: For job sites that are able to follow recommended social distancing, mask-wearing and other hygiene-based safety measures, regular employee testing probably isn’t necessary. But for locations with high-risk functions or where employees work in close proximity, adding testing procedures may be a good addition to your workplace.

As a reminder, these seven precautions can go a long way when it comes to employee safety:

  • Wash hands frequently for a full 20 seconds with warm water and soap (or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol).
  • Wear a mask.
  • Avoid touching the face, mouth and eyes.
  • Cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid shaking hands.
  • Disinfect high-contact surfaces.
  • Maintain at least six feet between employees for proper social distancing.

4 considerations for implementing employee COVID-19 testing

Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outline protections for employees, which include privacy and discrimination. State and local regulations may require additional information, too. Since guidance is evolving, you should be prepared to adjust your plan when needed.

  • All employee testing must comply with local, state and federal law as well as coronavirus-related guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • Testing should be nondiscriminatory, job-related and a business necessity. You shouldn’t be testing one group of employees (public-facing, for example) and not another.
  • Employee test results are considered protected health information (PHI) and require their own privacy measures.
  • With new protocols, current employees should be treated like new hires. Host onboarding sessions for those returning to work to outline and educate on the plan. Be transparent, empathetic and sensitive to employee questions and concerns.

Determining if pool testing for COVID-19 could work for you

While serology (antibody) tests aren’t recommended for employees, diagnostic pool testing may be a good solution. A diagnostic test, taken with a swab through the nose or back of the throat, will show if an individual tests positive or negative for COVID-19 at that specific point in time.

Diagnostic pool testing combines–or “pools”–a grouping of individual samples to get tested as a single batch (that’s where the cost-savings come in). If the pool comes back negative, they move to the next sample. If the pool returns a positive result, then the individuals that were part of that batch are tested individually again.

Diagnostic tests are offered through healthcare provider-based locations, community-based testing sites and independent testing facilities.

What you should do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19

Current guidelines tend to range from 10 to 14 days of quarantine. But to err on the side of caution, recommends Dr. Christina Taylor, MD, chief quality officer at The Iowa Clinic, an employee should stay home for 14 days after their positive result, or until at least three consecutive days have been symptom-free (whichever is longer). If symptoms come back, then the clock starts over. Any direct contacts should be notified while following ADA requirements, and the office area should be cleaned according to the CDC guidance.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, being open with your employees about expectations–and being ready to field questions as new information becomes available–will go a long way in helping your staff feel safe, comfortable and heard.

Learn more about The Iowa Clinic and its Employer Health Services Department.