By Doug Field, Chief Revenue Officer, PHASE Scientific Americas
While the recent surges of current COVID-19 variants are not driving high levels of hospitalization and death, the persistent, circulating virus continues to affect employees and spike absenteeism across businesses of all sizes. The impact is serious, affecting not only day-to-day operations and productivity but, potentially, long-term business growth. “Corporate HR leaders can play a meaningful role in mitigating this threat by promoting greater awareness of and access to Test to Treat programs for their workforce,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an international physician expert in the prevention and control of infectious diseases and a frequent advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization.
Impact of COVID Absenteeism on Business
Businesses across the spectrum continue to suffer due to COVID-19; driving increased employee absenteeism, regardless of whether the employee is sick or must provide care for family members. Recently, CNN reported that the share of adults not working due to virus-related reasons tripled from December 2021 to January 2022. In March 2022, Benefits Pro reported that employee absenteeism is still at an all-time high, even though “we are learning to live with the virus in our midst.” According to the Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 absences are restricting companies’ growth. The impact on operations, regardless of the size of the business, is enormous.
Impact on the Cost of Healthcare Benefits
The insurance advisory firm, Willis Towers Watson, has predicted that employer-sponsored benefit costs will rise by 8.1% on average globally for 2022. PwC’s Health Research Institute also predicts cost increases, in part, driven by continued pandemic-related issues. “The aftereffects of the pandemic and the health system’s response to changes and failures observed during the pandemic are expected to drive up spending (inflators) in 2022,” according to the PwC report. “The costs of testing for COVID-19, treating patients, and administering vaccinations for the disease likely will continue into 2022,” the PwC study said.
The coinciding impacts of rising healthcare costs, rising absenteeism, and the ongoing risk of caring for vulnerable employees put pressure on employers to find solutions that contain costs, lower absenteeism, and mitigate risk. It seems that Test to Treat might be a viable opportunity.
What is Test to Treat?
The Test to Treat initiative was launched by the Biden administration to create one-stop centers where patients could be tested for COVID-19 and be prescribed antivirals. From an employer’s perspective, the concept of Test to Treat is that an employee with COVID-19 symptoms can take a rapid antigen test, get the results in minutes, and upon receiving a positive result, access treatment without delay. Test to Treat is about catching the virus early, recovering quickly, and returning to the workplace. A Test to Treat program is ideally suited for businesses, to keep employees not only healthy but also contribute to company success.
Rapid antigen tests for point-of-care or at-home use, such as INDICAID®, continue to improve their capability to detect, including the likelihood of detecting the new BA.4 and BA.5 variants. These self-serve tests have grown in acceptance and reduce the time required to wait for test appointments and results, meaning that individuals who test positive can more quickly move to the treatment phase.
Treatments for the virus continue to enter the market. Some, like Paxlovid and Lagevrio, are proven to shorten the duration of COVID-19 symptoms and duration of test positivity, although they must be taken within five days of the onset of symptoms, making it critical to test as soon as possible. Says Klausner, “Testing to identify the presence of COVID-19 combined with immediate treatment can result in an accelerated negative test and faster return to work.” This reduces employee downtime, lack of productivity, and the negative impact on business operations.
Test to Treat may be especially helpful for protecting workers at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Since such employees tend to disproportionately affect a company’s healthcare costs so helping them detect and recover from COVID-19 more quickly may also help contain costs.
Lack of Awareness an Aggravating Factor
Awareness of the Test to Treat concept has lagged significantly. Most employees are unaware or under-informed about the benefits of Test to Treat and about the availability and benefits of rapid testing combined with rapid treatment. Healthcare providers and pharmacies may also be unaware of the benefits and are not offering education to patients and consumers. Many workers are also unaware that they can obtain rapid antigen tests for home use at no cost, through insurance programs or Medicare, both at pharmacies and by mail order.
The good news is that lack of access to COVID-19 treatment has greatly improved, thanks to the FDA’s announcement that pharmacists can now prescribe Paxlovid, Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill. This adjustment to the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Paxlovid is significant because the drug must be taken within such a short window. After a positive test, rather than waiting for an appointment with a primary care physician, employees can go directly to a local pharmacy and receive the medication that will improve their COVID-19 experience and get them back to normal life quickly.
A Proactive Approach to Reducing Absenteeism
Depending on size and resources, some companies may implement Test to Treat programs, either on-site or through insurance and/or partnerships with telehealth organizations, as part of a corporate benefits program. Worksite health centers, whether onsite, shared, mobile, or virtual, can be partners in this initiative. Companies can also provide rapid antigen tests to employees to take at home, equipping them to easily test themselves. Employee communication about Test to Treat may also be useful; employees may not be aware of insurance coverage for at-home rapid antigen tests or the benefits of early treatment.
PHASE Scientific believes that Test to Treat may be a valuable approach to reducing absenteeism from COVID-19 infection, and to lowering the cost and risk impacts on the business. Information about employers’ adoption of this approach as well as other evolving COVID-19 diagnostic initiatives remains scarce.
To provide company leaders with COVID-19 employer testing benchmarks, including how others are tackling Test to Treat, PHASE is engaging with Arizona State University’s COVID-19 Workplace Commons – a leader in providing data on COVID-19 and the workplace – and the National Association of Worksite Health Centers to conduct industry surveys and peer-sharing webinars.
“As news cycles shift, it can be harder for employees, employers, and workplace policy makers to get the fact-based insights they need to make informed decisions about the evolving COVID-19 virus. ASU Workplace Commons remains committed to providing timely facts about this complex situation and employers’ best practices,” said Nate Wade, Executive Director, and Assistant Research Professor, ASU College of Health Solutions. “We’re interested in understanding evolving COVID-19 testing practices among companies and how those efforts may impact healthcare costs, absenteeism, productivity, and, of course, employee wellness.”
The workplace COVID-19 testing survey findings will be the focus of a future article. PHASE Scientific is dedicated to helping employers prevent productivity loss by ensuring that their workforce – in particular, their most at-risk employees – has the facts as well as the proactive testing and treatment tools they need.
About the Author
Doug Field is PHASE Scientific’s Chief Revenue Officer, responsible for commercial business in the Americas market. Prior to PHASE, Doug founded a world-class Healthcare and Benefits Marketplace, BENEFITS4UNOW; The Institute for HealthCare Consumerism; and Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Advisor, two of the HR industry’s biggest media properties. Doug’s four decades of experience in benefits technology and healthcare coalesce with his focus on Return-to-Work and COVID-19 Testing.