Why some workers are getting all the COVID tests they need
The latest COVID-19 wave has left millions of Americans scrambling for tests, braving long lines in the cold at pop-up sites or searching furiously online for kits to use at home. But for a select group of employees at some of the country’s largest companies, tests are free and often readily available.
Without an adequate federal system for developing and distributing rapid tests, companies have put their own testing services in place.
Google will send full-time employees in the United States free at-home tests that deliver results within minutes and retail for more than $70 each. BlackRock, an investment firm that manages nearly $10 trillion in assets, offers telehealth supervision as employees self-administer rapid tests for international travel. At JPMorgan Chase, bankers, including those at its retail sites, can order at-home rapid tests from an internal company site.
Some companies are using the tests to call their staff back 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.
The testing available to a small number of white-collar professionals underscores the difference between their pandemic experience and that of other Americans, putting them at an advantage over many, including workers at small businesses without the means to procure testing kits for their staffs. Like personal protective equipment and vaccines, tests have become the latest example of how a tool to battle the pandemic can exacerbate social and economic 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.
Some employers secured contracts with companies that supply or administer tests in the earlier months of the pandemic, before the omicron variant unexpectedly drove up demand. Following the advice of experts, some are incorporating testing as part of their return-to-office protocols.
Belle Haven Investments, an asset management firm in Westchester County in New York with only 40 employees, has been storing tests in a supply closet.
“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.”
In the United States, the federal government has moved more slowly than other countries to authorize rapid antigen tests for everyday use. Britain, for example, was quicker to approve rapid tests as a public health tool, leading to 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. The result is a nationwide shortage of tests.
Americans who cannot get tests are often left to wait in lines that can run as long as three hours. Or they can try to buy at-home tests online or in stores. Walgreens and CVS last month announced limits on the purchase of at-home rapid test kits at stores.
The Biden administration has stepped up its efforts to make tests more broadly available and affordable, requiring insurer reimbursement for tests, invoking the Defense Production Act and announcing plans to ship 500 million tests to Americans. The United States is expected to have 1 billion rapid tests by the end of this year, or three tests per person, according to Tinglong Dai, a professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. The country is now reporting more than 2 million tests a day on average, up from about 500,000 last summer and higher than at any previous point in the pandemic.
Joseph Allen, an associate professor at the 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,” Allen said.
But with testing kits scarce, and sorely needed by people who cannot 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.