Abbott’s COVID-19 testing success story could be model for other companies

Medical Watch

Schools are trying to reopen. Businesses are struggling to keep Covid infections down even when employees need to be on site. Abbott, the company that makes a rapid Covid test, runs tests weekly, throughout the world on its 25,000 employees across 50 sites in eight countries. The end result? Less than a half percent Covid positivity.

1,800 employees roll through the gate at Abbott each day and to keep the wheels turning at the north suburban healthcare giant, they all make a stop to test and the company is putting its own science to the test.

The process starts with an app. Employees schedule two on-site COVID-19 tests each week.

They check in using a QR code and then they self-swab each nasal passage.

Frank Weitekamper is a vice president at Abbott.

“This is a rapid test. It’s an antigen test and in 15 minutes I have a result,” he said.

Mariana Mora, who works in the communications office, has had more Covid tests than she can remember.

“It’s definitely painless. It’s so easy, so convenient to have the testing onsite,” she said. “I sign up. I book an appointment on a system. I come down here. It takes me probably five minutes to get the test done. … It’s been really reassuring to get the testing done here knowing that I am not posing a risk to my family, to my colleagues and others around me.”

Mora said getting the test is always anxiety provoking, but knowing the result is far more reassuring.

“If it was longer it would probably be different,” she said. “But 15 minutes is a short way to get the results.”

It works like a pregnancy test. A special strip inside the kit looks for antigens or proteins specific to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“If you are positive you have two lines. Negative one line,” Weitekamper said.

The result shows up in 15 minutes on each employee’s app. But if it’s positive, there’s an immediate phone call.

Mary Moreland is executive vice president of human resources.

“What’s most interesting is that seven out of 10 people who test positive have no symptoms,” she said. “So, we’re doing exactly what we want, which is catching people who are ill, they don’t know they are ill, but then they are able to quarantine so that they don’t infect their families, the community or the workplace.”

It’s the exact scenario that played out for Mary Rodgers, an infectious disease research scientist. In October, the $5 rapid test she helped develop detected her own asymptomatic infection.

“I came in for testing when I was feeling fine and I got the call that I was positive,” she said. “I immediately went home, isolated myself, and later on eventually started to feel sick.”

Abbott started testing their employees last summer after months of careful planning. Now the program has expanded globally.

“It’s really nice to have the peace of mind to know myself and everyone around me is negative,” Rodgers said.

“It’s one of the ways that we are going to be able to continue to stay healthy and combat the virus,” Mora said.

Abbott is hoping other companies and even schools can replicate a similar testing system to help get more employees back to work.

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