Alison Bakken took the swab from the yellow-gowned lab worker, expertly rolled it around each nostril and handed it back. Within 15 minutes, a reassuring bright green box lit up her mobile phone with word that her latest COVID-19 test was negative.
Bakken has been getting tested every Wednesday since October, when her employer, Abbott Labs, began mandating onsite COVID-19 screening for all its U.S. workers.
The Chicago-based medical device and health care company, which has a major presence in the Twin Cities, now regularly tests 38,000 employees at 84 sites in 14 countries for COVID-19. Among the company’s products is a rapid antigen test for coronavirus. And its internal use of that test represents a monitoring effort and study of the virus on scale that may be unmatched in any business worldwide.
As employers prepare a return to work amid rising vaccinations and declining COVID-19 cases, routine on-site testing may be another way to give workers peace of mind. Surveys show that while many remote workers miss in-person collaboration and the social aspects of work, huge chunks of the workforce view the office as a breeding ground for coronavirus.
“We all know vaccine coverage is not perfect right now and it probably never will be,” said Kumi Smith, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “There’s a lot of good reasons for workplaces to think about how they can test. At least we could eliminate the workplace as a major source of exposure.”
Bakken, a senior manager of operations at the Abbott Labs facility in Plymouth, said weekly tests have given her an “added level of ease and comfort” on a campus where 2,000 people worked before the pandemic and round-the-clock manufacturing operations have continued throughout.
“We’ve had asymptomatic positive people who wouldn’t have otherwise known it or thought to go and get tested,” Bakken said. “That gave them the ability to take the right measures earlier than they may have without this.”
Abbott said 85% of sales of its global COVID-related tests during the second quarter came from rapid tests. Its BinaxNOW test kits have been used by states, nursing homes, schools, workplaces and, more recently, by consumers who now can buy them without a prescription at retailers.
The company produces about 150 million rapid COVID-19 tests per month, and expects demand for the simple and inexpensive tests to remain strong as the world continues to open up.
Abbott Labs’ experience of running more than 900,000 BinaxNOW tests on its global workforce has proved valuable in helping to keep outbreaks in check and giving employees confidence to work in close quarters in manufacturing facilities, its leaders said.
About seven in 10 employees who tested positive for COVID-19 didn’t feel sick at all, the company reports. Those who test positive get a phone call from the lab, which is operated by a third-party occupational health provider, and told to quarantine. The lab works with local county health officials and affected Abbott worksites on contact tracing.
“Our positivity rate is quite low compared to communities around us,” said Mary Moreland, Abbott Labs’ top human resources officer. “We’re finding those people who would otherwise possibly inadvertently be infecting others within the workplace and others in the home as well.”
Abbott has chosen to make testing mandatory rather than vaccines, though it strongly encourages employees to get inoculated. Moreland said she knows of no resistance to the full-scale testing. In community hot spots, she said, workers often get more than one test a week.
The outside lab protects private medical data, providing only aggregate data to company leaders, Moreland said, while its Navica mobile app provides an encrypted digital health pass and QR code that comes from the health care provider.
It’s not unusual for colleagues who test positive to proactively alert those they had lunch with or had been in meetings with days before official contact tracers reach out.
“I think there were more privacy concerns earlier in the pandemic,” said Bakken, who has worked for Abbott Labs for 11 years. “The level of ease people feel exceeds privacy concerns.”
Abbott Labs, which acquired Little Canada, Minn.-based St. Jude Medical in 2017, has about 5,000 workers in Minnesota. Workers at six sites now are getting weekly COVID tests.
In Plymouth, Abbott’s largest Minnesota campus, masks and other precautions remain in place even with widespread testing. Employees eat lunch outside the cafeteria, remaining socially distanced. Workers who make and assemble devices that treat congenital heart and peripheral vascular diseases wear full protective gear.
Michael Cummane, who led Abbott’s pandemic crisis management team in Minnesota and set up the testing stations, said on-site screening adds one more layer of protection to temperature checks, masking, social distancing, hand washing and an insistence that those who are sick stay home.
“At the end of the day here, it was about understanding the situation and putting the mechanisms and structures in place to ensure the safety of our people,” said Cummane, divisional vice president of operations for Abbott’s electrophysiology business. “There are a lot of essential workers building essential products that are life-changing for people.”
The U’s Smith, an expert in infectious disease dynamics, cautioned that while workplace testing is helpful, it’s just one part of stopping the virus.
“Routine screening and regular testing in more of a systematic way for the general population — all of us, regardless of where we work — would be far more helpful,” she said.
Abbott’s leaders said they recognize their role, and that widespread testing takes minimal effort for outsized gains.
“People can continue to come to work here, they can go home to their families and communities … and everybody knows that everyone in the building has successfully gone through that test,” Cummane said. “It’s really important from a safety perspective.”