Medical labs navigate COVID rules

Having a plan in place is crucial regardless of what the courts decide.

Prior to the Dec. 17 ruling setting President Joe Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate in motion again, West Michigan medical labs have offered opportunities for businesses to implement their own strategies and have systems in place to protect their employees from the virus and avoid any potential upheavals of normal business operations.

Grand Rapids-based Arctic Molecular is one such lab that has been working closely with a variety of businesses, including government employers, schools, health care entities and manufacturers to guide them through the many uncertainties of the current state of the pandemic and now the new mandate. According to medical lab personnel, having a COVID-19 vaccine and testing plan in place may be of benefit to employers, even if the federal order had stayed on the back burner or if their business does not fall under the ruling.

Mandy Allen. Courtesy Arctic Molecular

“Even if not mandated, the potential benefits to an employee-testing program are undisputed,” said Mandy Allen, director of business development and community engagement, Arctic Molecular. “We’ve seen surveillance testing and testing of at-risk, close contact, and symptomatic individuals help to ensure health and safety of companies and productivity with current testing partners, and also right in our own lab.”

Arctic Molecular also has worked with local schools and health officials to offer programs that provide testing to local communities.

The emergency temporary standard (ETS), which formerly was in question after a pause in late November, now is back in motion after the Dec. 17 federal court ruling requiring private companies with 100 or more employees to wear face masks if they are not fully vaccinated and be subject to weekly COVID testing, with the exception for those working outdoors or only at home. The plan originally was to take effect by Jan. 4, but the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) said it will give companies some extra time to form a plan and implement requirements and will not issue citations before Jan. 10, if the employer is exercising reasonable, good-faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.

“While it is possible that testing requirements may change depending on the various courts’ decisions, it seems likely that the requirement will hold based upon similar rulings. Irrespective of mandates, programs with PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing of unvaccinated and symptomatic/close-contact employees make good business sense, as recent large service disruptions in industries such as airlines have indicated,” Allen said. 

According to a Gallup survey conducted in September 2021, a slight majority of Americans were in favor of employer vaccination and testing enforcement, though those on the other side oppose any such regulation. Of those survey respondents, 58% of Americans said they were in favor of requiring companies with 100 or more employees to have all their workers vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly for it, and similarly, 63% of respondents said they were in favor of requiring hospitals and other health care facilities that receive federal health care funds to have all their employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Conversely, Gallup polls indicate those who oppose employer vaccine requirements have remained between 36% and 39% since spring 2021 and firmly hold their position, as 29% of those on the opposite end said they strongly oppose their employers implementing such requirements.

Even as questions loom about whether the mandate will remain in place, West Michigan laboratories and businesses say they hope plans they already have put in place will provide some relief to overwhelmed health systems and protect communities from further surges amid ongoing positivity rates and questions surrounding the emergence of new variants. Locally offered programs, including that of Arctic Molecular’s, provide services and relief of testing duties for human resource workers and other company executives who otherwise might spend significant time coordinating employee testing and oversight.

“The needs are just so complex in the middle of this pandemic. I think having a lab like ours provide this all-inclusive approach to testing is really ideal. We handle all of it right from supplying the testing materials, handling and maintaining all of the shipping and supply management, right down to maintaining all of those results, the records for those, and also updating the companies that we work with,” Allen said. “We’re updating them weekly on ‘This is your positivity rate, and this is what we’ve seen over the course of the past week,’ and that really helps to identify quicker what’s going on in terms of spread through our companies.”

The company also provides access to a dedicated OSHA representative to help employers build out a successful testing program, prepare staff for any testing requirements and ensure compliance with its and any other ETS orders. According to Allen, the lab typically suggests companies select a designated HR or other company representative to work closely with OSHA and the regulatory bodies within the community.

“Ideally, businesses need to figure out if they fall into the mandated testing category, and if not, work internally to figure out what the benefit to a program would be, along with what the cost (of) not (implementing) a program could potentially mean for their staff and business,” Allen said. “If it makes sense for them to initiate a program, even if not mandated, we are one of many local companies standing by ready to help. Keeping our community safe, healthy and productive is our goal.”

As employers waited to see whether the mandate would hold, they found themselves in a delicate balancing act of implementing practices to keep their employees and companies safe from virus outbreaks while trying to not deter any current or potential employees from working after millions left the workforce over the past couple of years as a result of the pandemic.

The U.S. Supreme Court was, at press time, scheduled to hear oral arguments Jan. 7 on emergency applications by various parties to re-stay the OSHA mandate, determining whether the government should be able to enforce the federal vaccine mandates while the underlying litigation challenging them still is ongoing. Allen said medical laboratories are standing by to help navigate these new circumstances, regardless of what SCOTUS decides.

“And, you know, everyone’s just looking to do the right thing for the community, so we’re here to help,” Allen said. “If by chance we ran into a situation where we couldn’t (help), we have partner labs that we would identify at that time to help people. So, I think (the) biggest thing is just letting people know that we’re a big community, we all work together, and I think, ideally, we’re all just trying to do the right thing to keep our community safe.”

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