Every Wednesday, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., the Kensington Community Food Co-op parking lot turns into a COVID-19 testing lab. The Vybe Urgent Care mobile lab tests anyone who signs up in advance. They started the weekly tests in October as a way to keep employees and the community safe.
“We’re trying to be able to offer testing to as many people as possible,” said Mike Richards, the co-op’s general manager, who also has a strict mask mandate within the store for employees and customers. The last few weeks, Vybe administered more than 60 tests each day. “The way people can stay safe is by wearing a mask and getting tested to be sure you’re not asymptomatic and spreading anything to family members, friends or co-workers.”
The PCR screening tests are sent to a lab with results coming back in two to five days, which can be problematic. In general, turnaround time on results differs by testing provider, lab, and the workload that each has. In September, it was common to get results within one day, but the Thanksgiving rush led to delays. The fee is covered by the person’s insurance. If they lack insurance, the government covers the cost through the CARES Act.
Employee safety is the top priority for businesses dealing with ever-changing restrictions throughout the pandemic. After Thanksgiving, the overall weekly hospitalization rates reached their highest point since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The staggering rates led Pennsylvania to shut down indoor dining, suspend closed all casinos, gyms, and other entertainment venues, and lower retail occupancy limits, through Jan. 4, while Jan. 15 is the reopening date for restaurants and indoor gatherings in Philadelphia.
Gov. Tom Wolf also transferred $145 million to be turned into grants for commonwealth businesses, including restaurants and bars, hurt by the pandemic.
Professional service employees are encouraged to work from home, but for many businesses, that’s not possible. For those that rely on in-person interactions, including restaurants, retailers and service providers, safety measures add costs at a time when business and profits are elusive.
“We have talked to restaurants who have invested heavily on PPE, special cleaning, partitions, air purification systems and training for staff and employees,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has about 600 members. They are just trying to cover costs, she said, tempering their expectations of making a profit.
“The vast majority of businesses in the Latino community are microbusinesses, which tend to be family owned businesses,” she said. “Having such limited staffing and often being a family business, it’s critical for them that everybody’s healthy.”
Area colleges and universities, hoping to maintain an on campus presence, have also instituted protocols to keep students, staff and faculty safe. When Moore College of Art and Design students return to class in February, they will follow the same protocols they used during the fall semester, which proved successful.
All 400 students, faculty and staff were tested before returning to campus. The college tested every student with the Quidel antigen rapid test on campus. The results are less reliable than PCR tests, but they came back within 15 minutes and the $75 per test cost was covered by the school.
Throughout the semester, 10% of the student population, faculty and staff were tested weekly on campus with the PCR test. They were sent out to be read and results came back in 24 to 48 hours to the person tested and school administration. The cost was covered by the individual’s insurance.
The school’s first positive tests came in mid-November and three students, none of whom lived on campus, tested positive. Besides testing, protocols included reduced class sizes, keeping students and faculty spaced at least 6 feet apart, plexiglass on all the podiums, masks, face shields for faculty and an honor code.
“We made sure our students ate separately in the expanded dining halls safely, and kept our staff and faculty out of the dining halls,” said William L. Hill, II, senior vice president for finance at Moore. “We pushed the spring semester back two weeks and also removed the spring break.”
Madison Phillips, a senior majoring in graphic design, was initially nervous about going back to school in the fall. She could have taken classes online, but she valued practicing her art in the classroom.
“As I watched Moore come out with all the regulations and plans, I did feel very comfortable coming back to school,” said Phillips, who lives in Cherry Hill. “As COVID-19 changed with cases getting higher, getting tested was a necessity for our school to be able to stay open.”
Testing by itself is not a panacea. Studies suggest that tests may miss up to two-thirds of cases during the first four days of infection though detection improves after that. Also, if test results aren’t quickly returned, their value drops dramatically.
That’s why many businesses see tests as one part of an overall strategy. “Employers are very focused on safety and recognize that testing is an important component,” said Peter Hotz, Vybe CEO. “We’re strongly encouraging an equal focus on hygiene, mask wearing, distancing and symptom checking as equally important.”
Several local companies, including Vybe, Wellness Coaches and Impact Health, are bringing COVID-19 testing to onsite locations through mobile labs, a staff to provide safe rapid testing, and temperature screening. The city Health Department maintains a list of free testing sites on its website.
“We’re now providing COVID testing services for over 75 employers, which include companies across a wide variety of industries -- hospitality, health care, media, manufacturing and education,” Hotz said. “We’re strongly encouraging an equal focus on hygiene, mask wearing, distancing and symptom checking as equally important.”
Yet employees should be tested only if they are experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to a confirmed case,” said James Garrow, director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health Communications.
For Richards at the Kensington Community Food Co-op, the mission to stay safe is embedded in the group’s DNA.
“We are a community-owned grocery store so we have a responsibility to the community in lots of different ways,” he said. “One of the ways in which we do that is by providing people with access to food, but another way that I’m excited about is the ability to provide access to testing.”