The urgency to maintain workplace COVID-19 testing
As we enter the spring season, many Americans are rightly feeling optimistic about a return to normalcy. With new cases having declined and roughly 2 million Americans being vaccinated per day, we are making steady strides against COVID-19. Despite this progress, however, cases are still being reported at a significant rate and it is clear that COVID-19 transmission continues across the United States.
The Biden administration has, rightly, signaled its strong commitment to keeping Americans safe. At WE ACT, where I serve as senior advisor, we are committed to working with them to ensure those efforts translate into the workplace. Now one year since the declaration of a global pandemic, we must not forgo our vigilance around testing and community surveillance for COVID-19 spread. We cannot let our guard down and rely solely upon vaccinations to quell a pandemic that has claimed more than 530,000 American lives. Rather, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky recently noted, “…employers [should] consider incorporating testing for SARS-Cov-2 into workplace preparedness, response and control plans.”
There are several steps the federal government can take now to empower employers to protect their workforce and the communities in which they operate.
First, the administration should match existing capabilities and capacity with areas of need in the workplace while continuing to support the development and increased availability of various types of COVID-19 tests. Specifically, it should expand the availability of pooled tests, rapid point-of-care tests, at-home and over-the-counter tests recently authorized or in receipt of an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The stamp of approval from federal regulators will give both employers and employees the confidence that these tests are safe and reliable and ultimately support the agency’s goal of improving COVID-19 test capacity and accessibility.
Second, the administration should issue guidance and implementation protocols that provide clarity on how employers can best utilize the growing number of testing options to deploy workplace surveillance testing. Such guidance should include: best practices on test frequency; the appropriate time to conduct mandatory testing; and how surveillance testing should be integrated into employer-based contact tracing activities. We must build upon the Department of Labor’s (DOL) January 2021 guidance on protecting workers to promote consistency and scalability among employers around testing protocol at the local, state and national levels.
Third, the administration could make employer-based testing more broadly available by streamlining the baffling patchwork of local, state, and federal reporting requirements. A clear, consistent national standard that enables employers and their testing vendors to quickly report actionable information to public health authorities would provide immediate benefits. This guidance should also include ways to effectively and efficiently provide state and local governments with information related to infection rates in local communities and to afford employers insight into how to reduce spread at a given worksite.
Finally, the administration should continue prioritizing investments in university and research labs as they remain key to increasing capacity for COVID-19 testing, improving turnaround times and stimulating additional biomedical research. These short-term investments will provide long-term benefits and allow us to better respond to the current pandemic, as well as develop a comprehensive infrastructure to fight future emerging threats.
These are common-sense recommendations that should be incorporated into any national COVID-19 strategy. Ensuring that American workers have access to safe and reliable testing in the workplace will help curb the spread and better preserve the health and wellness of individuals, families and communities across the country.
Dr. Mario Ramirez is the former acting director of the HHS Office of Global Affairs Office of Pandemic and Emerging Threats and serves as Senior Advisor to the Workplace Employers Alliance for COVID-19 Testing (WE ACT).
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