Millions of Americans are scrambling to get tested, enduring long lines at pop-up locations in the cold and searching tirelessly online for kits to use at their homes. But for a select group of employees at some of the country’s largest companies, tests are free and often readily available.
Companies have created their own testing services without a federal system to develop and distribute rapid tests.
Google will send full-time US employees free at-home tests. They deliver results in minutes and retail for over $70 each. BlackRock, an investment bank that manages more than $10 trillion, offers telehealth supervision. Employees self-administer rapid tests to help them plan international travel. JPMorgan Chase offers tele-health supervision to its bankers. They can order at home rapid tests from an internal company website.
Some companies use the tests to call back their employees to the office. For others, at-home Covid testing has become the newest wellness benefit, a perk to keep employees healthy and working — even from their couches — while providing peace of mind.
A small number white-collar professionals have access to testing. This highlights the difference between their pandemic experience, and that of other Americans. It also gives them an advantage over many others, including small-business workers without the funds to buy testing kits for their staff. Tests are the latest example, like vaccines and personal protection equipment, of how a tool to fight the pandemic may exacerbate economic and social divides.
“We’re the epicenter of the epicenter and I can’t get test kits anywhere,” said Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which has roughly 1,400 members that employ about 150,000 workers in the borough.
Employers secured contracts with companies that provided or administered tests in the early months of the pandemic. This was before the Omicron variant unexpectedly pushed up demand. Some are now including testing in their return to work protocols, following the advice of experts.
Belle Haven Investments is an asset management company in Westchester County, New York. It has 40 employees. They have been storing the tests in a supply room.
“We’re trying to stockpile them,” said Laura Chapman, chief operating officer of the firm, which has not mandated a return to the office, though many workers have voluntarily come back. She added that the company was ordering only as many tests as employees were demanding, and that they were facing shortages: “Those tests, man, those home tests are so hard to get.”
The United States has taken a longer time than other countries to approve rapid antigen testing for everyday use. For example, rapid antigen tests were approved faster in Britain than the United States. This allowed for faster production. And unlike Washington’s approach to vaccines, the development of rapid tests has until recently been mostly financed by private companies like Abbott Laboratories. This has led to a national shortage of tests.
Americans who are unable or unwilling to take tests are often left waiting in lines that can last up to three hours. They can also buy at-home tests online, or in stores. CVS and Walgreens last month set limits on the availability of at-home rapid tests kits in stores.
The Biden administration has intensified its efforts to make test more widely available and more affordable. It requires insurer reimbursement for tests and invokes the Defense Production Act. In addition, it announced plans to ship 500,000,000 tests to Americans. According to Tinglong DAI, a professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, the United States will have one billion rapid tests by the year’s end, which is three tests per person. The average number of tests the country is reporting per day is more than two million, an increase from approximately 500,000 last summer. This is higher than any point in the pandemic.
Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said earlier coordination on the national level could have “flooded the market” with tests and made them more available for everyone.
“It doesn’t surprise me that many organizations who were recognizing they need these tests to stay in business were buying them,” Dr. Allen said.
But with testing kits scarce, and sorely needed by people who can’t work remotely, some public health experts question the current distribution of resources.
“There’s a few better targets than at-home white-collar workers,” said Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a pathologist in Connecticut specializing in laboratory medicine.
BlackRock, with more than 7,600 U.S. workers, offers its staff one at-home P.C.R. Each week, employees can receive a test kit and up to six monthly antigen kits at-home for those who are Covid-exposed. Additionally, they have tele-health supervision to administer self-administered rapid testing for international travel. This option was launched during the December holidays.
Bankers at Morgan Stanley can receive four free BinaxNOW test every two weeks through a third-party. However, the lack of tests has delayed shipment. Bankers can order fast tests at JPMorgan. Corporate employees claimed that they were informed last month that they could temporarily work at home due to the Omicron variant’s rapid spread.
TIAA, an American investment firm employing 12,000 people, started offering free at-home testing in December 2020. Although the majority of its employees have been working from home since the outbreak, about 5 percent had been visiting the office in the past year. Jessica Scott, a spokeswoman for the company, stated that there is no limit to how many tests employees can order for their family members and themselves.
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“The goal of offering that is providing comfort to our employees so they don’t have to unnecessarily worry or be burdened by having to find a test outside the home,” said Sean Woodroffe, the firm’s head of human resources.
TIAA is exploring a partnership to expand its testing options. This partnership would be with Detect, which offers at-home molecular testing. “We’re not hoarding tests,” Mr. Woodroffe added. “We have tests to fulfill our demand.”
Google’s full-time employees in the United States have access to multiple types of coronavirus tests they can take at home, the company said. Employees can now request P.C.R. BioIQ offers tests. Employees collect a nasal swab at home, and it is processed in the company’s lab.
Google also provides employees with a small testing device that generates results in minutes.
Employees insert a cartridge into a reader to perform the rapid molecular testing. They then swab their nose, and the cartridge will send the results by phone. The test is made by Cue Health, a company that provided testing for the National Basketball Association’s bubble.
According to a securities filing, Google in April signed a deal to provide test kits to its employees through Cue Health. The devices were not available for direct purchase to the public until November. Cue Health had also previously signed a contract with the federal government, and helped it distribute the tests in 20 states.
Cue Health is now selling the reader directly for $250. A 10-pack retails for $712. Google provides employees with 10 tests using the Cue Health reader. They also cover the cost of up 20 test cartridges each month. Cue Health also stated it offered consumers memberships, which include discounts on tests or the reader.
According to documents reviewed and published by The New York Times. Google uses many temporary workers, vendors, contractors, and others who don’t have access to the Cue Health testing. A spokeswoman from Google said that vendors and temporary workers may use the at home P.C.R. tests performed by BioIQ if they were coming into Google’s American offices.
Other technology companies have adopted a less restrictive approach to testing. Frank Shaw, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company offers rapid antigen home testing for its employees. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, provides testing at around 10 of its offices for employees who have returned for in-person work, said Tracy Clayton, a press officer for the company.
However, testing is often more difficult for businesses and their employees.
Jesus Caicedo Diaz is the owner of Skal in Brooklyn. He said that his employees were having trouble getting Covid test results prior to the restaurant opening at 10 a.m. Testing lines would often run hours and end early in the morning.
It is even more difficult to find at-home tests. “They’re nowhere to be found. They’re all gone. If you do find them, they want $30 for them,” Mr. Caicedo-Diaz said. “If you go to a test site they tell you your result won’t come on time. I don’t know how to navigate this. It’s driving me crazy.”
Source: NY Times