Washington DC.— The latest wave of COVID-19 has caused millions of Americans to scavenge for diagnostic tests in long lines in the cold at pop-up sites or search online for kits to use at home.
But for select employees at some of America’s biggest companies, tests are free and often readily available.
Without a proper federal system to rapidly develop and distribute tests, companies have launched their own testing services.
Google will send free in-home tests to full-time employees in the United States, which return results within minutes and retail for more than $70 each.
BlackRock, an investment firm that manages nearly $10 trillion in assets, advises remotely when employees self-examine for international travel.
At JPMorgan Chase, bankers can request an in-home rapid test from an internal company site, including its retail sites.
Some companies are using tests to get their employees back to the office. For others, home testing has become the newest wellness benefit, a benefit for providing peace of mind to keep employees healthy and working, even from their couch.
The tests available to a small number of white-collar professionals underscore the gap between their experience with the pandemic and that of other Americans, giving them an advantage over many, including small business workers, without the means to buy their personal kits.
Like personal protective equipment and vaccines, testing has become the latest example of how a tool to combat COVID-19 can bridge social and economic gaps.
“We are the epicenter of the epicenter and I can’t find testing anywhere,” said Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which has about 1,400 members that employ about 150,000 workers.
Some employers secured contracts with companies that supply or administer the test in the early months of the pandemic, before the Omicron version unexpectedly surged in demand.
On the advice of experts, some are including the tests as part of their office-to-office protocol.
Belle Haven Investments, an asset management firm with only 40 employees in Westchester County, New York, is collecting evidence in a supply closet.
“We’re trying to submit them,” said Laura Chapman, the firm’s chief operating officer, who did not order a return to the office, although many employees returned voluntarily.
He added that the company is only ordering the quantity of testing required for employees, and they are facing shortages.
“Those home tests are hard to come by.”
In the United States, the federal government has moved more slowly than in other countries to authorize rapid antigen tests for daily use.
For example, the UK was quick to support this type of testing as a public health tool, leading to rapid production.
And unlike Washington’s approach to vaccines, recent development of rapid tests has been primarily funded by private companies such as Abbott Laboratories. The result is a national shortage.
Americans who cannot get tested are often forced to wait in lines lasting up to three hours. Or they can try to buy a home test online or in a store.
Walgreens and CVS Pharmacies last month announced limits on the purchase of rapid home test kits.
But with testing becoming scarce and much needed for those unable to work remotely, some public health experts question the current allocation of resources.
BlackRock, which has more than 7,600 employees in the United States and has expanded its work-from-home flexibility through January 28, offers its employees a home PCR test kit every week, six monthly at-home antigen kits for exposed employees provides or members of their family; and telehealth monitoring for self-administered rapid tests for international travel, an option that debuted during the December holidays.
At Morgan Stanley, bankers can get four free BinaxNOW trials, which cost around $40 in-store, every two weeks through third parties, although shortages have delayed shipments.
At JPMorgan, where corporate employees said last month they were told they could temporarily work from home because of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, bankers could order accelerated testing.
TIAA, an investment firm with 12,000 employees in the United States, began offering free in-home testing to its employees in December 2020.
There is no limit to the number of tests employees can request, both for themselves and their families, according to spokeswoman Jessica Scott.
Full-time Google employees in the United States have a variety of coronavirus tests they can do at home, the company said.
Since last year, employees can order PCR tests provided by a company called BioIQ. Employees collect a nasal swab at home and have it processed in the company’s lab.
Google also delivers to employees who want a small test tool that delivers results in minutes.
A company spokesperson said temporary workers and vendors can use BioIQ’s home PCR tests upon entering offices in the United States.
Other tech companies have taken a more limited approach to testing.
A spokesman, Frank Shaw, said Microsoft provides free rapid home antigen testing to employees on its premises.
Tracey Clayton, a press officer, said Meta, Facebook’s parent company, provides testing in about 10 of its offices for employees who have returned to work in person.
But for many companies and their employees, proof is more difficult to come by.
The owner of Skaal, a Brooklyn restaurant, Jesus Cassado-Diaz, indicated that his workers struggle to get the results of COVID-19 tests before the business opens at 10:00 a.m.
Finding an at-home test is an even bigger challenge.
“They’re nowhere to be found. They’re gone. If he finds it, they want $30,” Caicedo-Diaz said.
“If you go to a test site they tell you your result won’t come in on time. I don’t know how to handle it. It’s driving me crazy.”