As more and more people are vaccinated, employers are considering reopening their offices, returning to full capacity and holding in-person events. Testing strategies to mitigate risk may be a key component to safe in-person gatherings. Here are some things to consider as you develop your own company’s testing strategy.
PCR Tests are the Gold Standard - but They’re Slower
PCR tests are the most reliable tests, hands down. If possible, requiring a negative PCR test is the best way to be sure that the people who will participate likely don’t have COVID. Of course, PCR tests generally take longer, though same day results are now possible in many areas. In the hours or days between their swab and your company’s event, there’s still a risk they could spread the virus.
PCR tests catch anywhere from about 85%-95% of true COVID positive cases. False positives are extremely rare, so you can be fairly sure that a positive PCR test is accurate, and that a negative means you likely didn’t have COVID at the time you were swabbed.
One key benefit of PCRs is that they can generally be done at home and shipped to a lab. However, at-home kits are slower because they need to be shipped to the lab, and all PCRs are more expensive than rapid tests.
Rapid Tests Can Work for Ongoing Testing, with Limitations
For large events, or regular testing of a group that will be in-person (like the main office), rapid testing, also known as antigen testing, might be another option to consider. Generally, it only takes 15 minutes to get results and these tests are generally cheaper than PCR tests.
There are limitations, though. Rapid tests are much less accurate, especially for asymptomatic employees, who are our targets here. They can miss up to 4 in 10 positive cases, lending a false sense of security to those who get a negative rapid result. There are also some logistical complications, since they require special waivers and healthcare professionals to swab and operate the rapid machines.
Best of Both Worlds
Many testing strategies use a combined approach – take both a 15-minute rapid test AND a PCR test. If the rapid test comes back positive, you can immediately begin identifying employees who may have come into close contact with that infected individual, knowing that the result is likely a true positive (though you may want a PCR result in hand as proof for travel, a 90-day quarantine exemption window, etc.). While false positives can happen, they are very rare.
If the rapid test comes back negative, don’t take that at face value. We know that a large proportion of rapid test results will be false negatives. For all negative rapid tests, we suggest a follow-up PCR test to identify positives that the rapid test might have missed, especially if we’re talking about an ongoing testing strategy for offices or workplaces. In the case of a large event, you might switch the order: have all attendees do an at-home PCR test a few days before the event, plus a rapid test at the door. It doesn’t eliminate risk—people could still be infected in the days between the test and the event—but it does significantly reduce that risk.
As always, we still recommend a symptoms-based approach to work exclusions and staying home. This means that even if the PCR comes back negative, we still want an employee who’s come down with a new cough and fever to stay home for 10 days from the start of their symptoms, because even PCRs can have false negatives.
Daily Employee Wellness Checks are Still our Best Defense
Regardless of testing, it’s imperative that every employee (including managers, C-levels, VIPs and anyone else who will be gathering at your event) is taking an employee wellness check survey every single day before going into work. Testing is not perfect by any means, and ensuring that no one works when they’re sick or if they’ve had a recent exposure to someone with COVID is still one of the most important tools in our defense against outbreaks in the workplace.