A comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy is the most effective way to address the question of who can safely return to work so that we can systematically lift restrictions on business closures.
We have already seen widespread evidence that people can be infected with COVID-19 despite being asymptomatic, which means they may unknowingly expose their coworkers to infection. Taking someone’s temperature or screening for other symptoms are NOT valid proxies for determining whether an individual is “healthy”, nor is antibody testing alone, which only determines whether someone has already been infected, not whether they are still at risk of exposing others. In fact, viral testing is the only way to determine whether an individual is still shedding virus and therefore contagious to others.
Given the distinct roles of antibody and viral testing, companies need to develop systematic protocols to clear employees for getting back to work. Periodic follow-up testing will allow companies to:
- Identify employees who have the virus and should stay quarantined
- Enable employees with cold-like symptoms who test negative to return to work more quickly
- Clear employees who have already been infected with both viral and antibodies testing
A comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy for workplaces
Below is a decision tree that includes the two different types of testing (read about the difference between the two types of testing). Used strategically, the two types of testing allow businesses to determine if an employee is currently infectious, is no longer infectious but was once infected by the virus, or has never been infected. This is outlined in the diagram below.
As laid out in the chart, companies could institute a multi-step COVID-19 testing protocol:
- Any person who previously tested positive for virus must receive a negative viral clearance test before returning to work;
- Any person who has no confirmation of prior infection should receive a viral test first.
- If they are positive for the virus, they must be retested until they receive a negative result, and then they can safely return to work.
- If they are negative for the virus, they should then have an antibody test to determine whether they were previously infected.
- If negative for the virus and positive on the antibody test, they can also safely return to work.
- If negative for the virus and negative on the antibody test, they should know they are susceptible to infection if they return to work.