Intermediaries are finding labs with capacity for companies seeking to make sure workers are virus-free. But many employers choose to avoid the cost.
By Noam Scheiber
As businesses try to recover from the pandemic’s economic blow while ensuring the safety of workers and customers, many have complained of two obstacles: access to coronavirus testing for their employees and long delays in receiving results.
But some have found a reliable workaround. Through a growing number of intermediaries, they can generally obtain test results in one to three days, often by circumventing large national labs like Quest and LabCorp that have experienced backlogs and relying on unused capacity at smaller labs instead.
The intermediaries occupied various corners of the health care galaxy before the pandemic, like offering treatment on behalf of insurance companies or providing employee access to human resources data. Now they are addressing what Rajaie Batniji, an executive at one of the companies, calls “a supply-chain optimization failure.”
“The bottleneck in the crudest terms is: Are you routing tests to processing labs that can process it immediately?” said Dr. Batniji, a physician and co-founder of Collective Health, which administers health plans for employers and created a separate testing and screening product during the pandemic. “That ends up being what slows us down.”
Daniel Castillo, the chief medical officer of Matrix Medical Network, which is among the companies connecting businesses with laboratories, said the solution often meant turning to labs located where the spread of the virus was relatively contained.
“In some places there are spikes and perhaps testing issues; in other parts of the country there are not,” said Dr. Castillo, whose company works with health insurers to treat chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. “We might send a test across the country — fly it to Maryland from Arizona.”
While there is not limitless capacity for employers to test workers, Dr. Batniji, Dr. Castillo and others in the industry said significantly more could do so. Even Quest and LabCorp have said their average turnaround times have dropped significantly in recent weeks.
A program intended to catch infections before they result in outbreaks typically requires testing a substantial portion of people in a shared space once a week, if not more frequently, whether or not they have symptoms. Mike Boots, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said that such testing could be enormously beneficial, but that it must be combined with other measures, like distancing and contact tracing, to be effective.
For PCR tests — which detect the virus’s genetic material and are the gold standard of accuracy — the process typically costs around $100 per test per person. Even less sensitive tests, which experts increasingly recommend as a screening tool, can add up, and most currently require special equipment and a health professional to administer them.
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