Even with a vaccine, regular testing will be required – and employers will be key.
Final stage testing on a Covid vaccine may have begun, but viral testing will still be needed – and employers are trying to enable access for their employees to get tested.
As NAREIM members tentatively eye a soft reopening and scaling up of their offices in September, CIC’s David Berlin spoke about the firm’s recently launched initiative – CIC Health – and efforts across the country to create community-wide testing assurance schemes, which pool access to viral testing and laboratory capacity for business, academic institutions and public services.
“It takes a village to be safe,” he said this week. “You are only as safe as the people around you, so I could get tested every hour but unless people have access to testing – unless the cleaners, security personnel, the food delivery people are also able to get tested – there’s no good way of knowing if you’re keeping yourself and others safe. And that’s our job as operators– to help people feel safe in the office and the office community.”
Berlin spoke to NAREIM to update members on the challenges to introducing testing – and the current state of testing innovation. Here are key highlights from the interview:
NAREIM: We’re hearing a lot about the progress towards a Covid-19 vaccine. What are the challenges in thinking a vaccine will be here within a matter of months?
Berlin: First a caveat, I'm not an epidemiologist. But there are two questions that we ask when we think about vaccines. When will we get the vaccine, as in mass distribution, and when will the entire country and world feel comfortable with the safety around that vaccine so there'll be widespread adoption?
Getting a vaccine to market within six months is five times as quick as the next fastest vaccine that’s been developed. Who is going to pay for it? Will we know if this is a cure or as effective as we hope? I think that we're going to have a vaccine soon, but I don't think there will be mass public adoption such that people feel comfortable going back to work or to stop them being tested on a regular basis.
That’s not to say I'm not hopeful there's a vaccine soon. I just don't know what that vaccine will mean for the larger reopening of society.
NAREIM: Does CIC believe therefore that viral/PCR testing needs to be undertaken by all businesses as they look to reopen or scale back up employee presence in the office?
Berlin: Testing is no different than having excess hand sanitizer or extra Lysol wipes on hand in the office. This is another piece of what scientists call the “Swiss cheese model” [which models an organization's defenses against failure as a series of barriers/slices with weaknesses/holes varying in size and position across each slice] to help our clients feel safe.
We feel it's also our responsibility to figure out how we can scale testing not only for our clients but also for the people who can't scale that for themselves, such as our cleaners, the restaurants near our offices, the schools, care homes. We are in a tremendous place of power and privilege and not everyone has the capacity to test and so we are working with a world renowned genomics research institution and national clinician network to enable access to regular PCR Covid testing [the testing kit developed by the CDC].
NAREIM: What are the key challenges to conducting regular PCR testing?
Berlin: Right now, you need a physician referral in order to get a test. Imagine if every time you wanted to get a pregnancy test you had to get a doctor to write a note. This adds time and a little bit of friction and we're trying to solve that issue by bringing on a national clinician network to be a referral process.
The second piece is the sign-up and reporting process. Instead of a laboratory doing this work, we’re having our staffe onboard individuals or companies, walk them through the process, talk to them about their options and get them to feel comfortable. Information needs to be HIPAA approved, safe and secure and to allow for contact tracing – and this isn't a super easy process. I’ll go back to pregnancy testing. Imagine if every time you were or weren’t pregnant you had to report that to the federal or state government and they had to do contact tracing with everyone that you've been around. There is a lot of process but not much technology surrounding this issue – but we need it to be done in a very quick turnaround period.
NAREIM: Is there enough testing capacity in laboratories to scale up testing?
Berlin: Part of what we've been doing with our laboratory partners is reserving capacity so we never get to a place where a company or person runs out of tests or faces a two-week turnaround time. We're also trying to partner with non-profit or socially/mission-oriented laboratories to help lower costs.
Unfortunately, there is no incentive currently to lower costs. If we also start testing more asymptomatic people, there’s also the question of who will pay for that? Insurance, the state or federal government? Individuals? We need to price tests low enough so that the private market can afford to do regular testing and that’s what we’re trying to solve for by pooling demand.
We’re filling the gap of being a logistics provider for these laboratories. Labs for the most part have capacity, but it’s not accessible.
NAREIM: So what’s the ideal roadmap for private business and NAREIM members when it comes to testing?
Berlin: We’re currently talking to over 100 clients businesses, schools, nursing homes, airlines to try to improve their access to testing. The gold standard for any business would be to do antigen testing [which quickly detects the proteins found on or within Covid] every day, then depending on your job or exposure to PCR testing every three days to weekly. We know that takes a lot of money, time and resources and you have to be very privileged. That’s why we need to work as a village. It takes a village to be safe.
For more information on the CIC Health initiative, contact David Berlin