How a company that makes COVID tests is keeping its own 50,000 employees safe
Among its many lines of business, Siemens Healthineers, the medical technology company headquartered in Germany, produces diagnostic tests for various diseases. So by mid-March, Deepak Nath, the company’s president of Laboratory Diagnostics knew this was uncharted territory. “You’re in the diagnostic field so you remember how you dealt with Zika or MERS,” he recalls. “As we got into March it became clear we were not dealing with an outbreak like we’d seen before and this was not something we were going to be able to snuff out.”
Since then, the company has been on the forefront of producing antibody tests for COVID—it recently announced a collaboration with the CDC for a ‘semi-quantitative’ IGG test for COVID, the first of its kind that will measure the duration and level of an individual’s immune response over time with a numerical index value. In the meantime the company is also grappling with how to keep it’s own global workforce of 50,000 people healthy.
“The ideal scenario is to test every employee every day,” says Nath. But as of now, “that’s not a practical goal—the technology we all want, a non-invasise test, a reasonable price, results that are available quickly, that just doesn’t exist.”
So “by definition, anything you come up with will have to piece together those things” notes Nath. At his company, they quickly decided the first order of business should be to offer antibody tests to any of its 50,000 employees around the world that wanted one. Then the company put in place a weekly testing regime for any employees whose jobs required them to come on site, or who needed to travel for work. Employees that could work from home were encouraged to do so, and in the offices group meeting were limited, large gatherings banned, and all food service was changed to grab-and-go. Meanwhile, management has worked to reduce site density and provide PPE on site for workers.
Though they also use temperature checks, “that’s a pretty crude tool” says Nath, since someone could have been carrying the virus for days before they run a fever. That said, anyone who shows up at work with symptoms or a temperature is immediately sent home, and is given an at-home test to administer.
Though there have been cases identified, Nath says it has been “relatively easy to do contract tracing and figure out who employees may have been in contact with” and taken together the company’s steps have prevented any large outbreaks. (Due to privacy considerations, he says they decided not to do contract tracing through phones or tracking apps.)
For his part, Nath says he has been trying to work from home as much as possible, and that the real risk he worries about, both for himself and his colleagues, is “getting to the office” whether that’s taking public transportation, or in his case, flying to various sites around the world. When he does fly, he wears a mask and face shield, and regardless of his schedule gets tested 1-2x per week as well as doing an antibody test once a month.
Looking forward, he anticipates the next big hurdle for employers is when a vaccine is ready. Can employers ask employees to take it? Should they require it? “If you are talking about what you as a company can ask your employees, the answer varies from country to country,” he says, noting that for the antibody test they settled on offering rather than requiring it.
In other words, employers can expect plenty more tests as time goes on—no matter what field they are in.