COVID-19 Testing in the Workplace: ‘It’s Working’
A conversation with Brian Montanari might have someone questioning whether he’s leading coronavirus testing or serving as an aerospace manufacturing executive.
The sights and sounds inside his Glastonbury office ensure it’s the latter, but his knowledge about testing for an infectious disease has grown significantly during the pandemic.
“The testing is the only way in my opinion, to really ensure we are doing our due diligence to prevent an outbreak,” said Montanari, president and CEO of HABCO Industries.
Since April 2020, HABCO has tested employees regularly for COVID-19, using various testing models and analyzing costs and effective practices for a workplace where the majority of employees need to be in the building to keep operations running smoothly.
From saliva testing on an individual basis, to pool testing, nasal antigen, as well as at-home molecular tests, HABCO has utilized many methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Antigen, Molecular Testing
Montanari said the company is currently using a mix between the at-home antigen test and at-home molecular test designed by Guilford-based Detect that was recently granted emergency use authorization by the FDA.
HABCO tests all unvaccinated employees on a bi-weekly basis using the rapid antigen test and flexes to weekly testing based on COVID-19 positivity rates in the state.
If an employee were to test positive, HABCO tests them again using a Detect test.
The test takes about an hour to complete, but identifies the virus’ presence as effectively as a PCR test, according to the company.
Vaccinated employees can also get tested with the molecular test if they have symptoms or close contact with a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Montanari said he purchased a large batch of antigen tests for roughly $5 per test, and is spending about $50 on the molecular tests.
While this is currently the most cost effective solution, and helps a growing Connecticut business, Montanari said pool testing also worked well.
The company first began testing employees weekly in April 2020, using individual saliva PCR tests purchased through MicroGenDx for more than $100 a test.
Montanari believes HABCO was the first non-healthcare company in the country to start administering COVID tests on site for employees.
Employees spat in a collection device, and results were overnighted to a Texas lab. Within 36 hours, employees had a result that gave them the green or red light to go to work.
A third-party healthcare provider was also involved to keep the process compliant and accurately recorded with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HABCO moved to pool testing a few months later to cut costs, but retained a thorough testing program.
In this model, four people tested in their own specimen jars, HABCO then put the jars in a box and sent them to a lab where small amounts of each specimen were tested them as a pool.
If it was negative, then everyone was presumed negative. If it was positive, they would run some of what was left of the four specimens and see who was positive.
“That was a huge cost reduction. It went from being over $100 a test to $25 a test. That was a sweet spot,” said Montanari.
Once the workforce began to undergo vaccinations, HABCO moved to a model where unvaccinated employees were tested at least every other week using a rapid antigen test, sometimes more often if state cases were increasing.
If an employee tested positive, HABCO administered the PCR test and sent the employee home pending the results of the PCR test.
Testing is still costing the company a significant amount of money, but Montanari feels it has been worth it. To date, there have been no outbreaks at the 65-person company.
“The amount of money we spent in 2020 on COVID protocol stuff is astounding,” said Montanari.
“It’s a lot of money for a company of our size, but I felt it was better to spend that money and ensure we had continuity of operations to maintain our customers, versus having to shut down, and not deliver our products and force customers to find another supplier.”
Still, Montanari hopes the state or federal government can help offset costs for businesses to buy tests to keep operations afloat.
Testing has kept employee morale high as they worked through some of the darkest days of the pandemic.
“I have yet to have any employee say ‘I don’t feel comfortable coming to work.’ And that’s important to me. So to me, it’s worth paying for,” said Montanari.
Eighty-two percent of HABCO employees are now vaccinated against COVID-19, but pre-vaccination, Montanari said employee fears subsided with testing at work.
Even now, when an employee might have a cough or the sniffles, there is a solution that does not make them feel their job is in jeopardy, or they are putting a coworker at risk.
“For us, having the ability to test, puts that at ease,” said Montanari.
“Someone is a little under the weather, they call their boss, we just say ‘come in and we will test you.'”
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