UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft are offering companies a coronavirus screening app called ProtectWell that provides a daily symptom screener to help clear employees to go to work or direct them to be tested if they are at risk for infection.
As U.S. companies struggle to bring employees back under stringent new safety requirements, health-care and tech companies are rolling out new services that go beyond temperature checks. The apps are designed to help protect the safety of employees returning to work as well as to entice customers to return to restaurants and stores by ensuring wait staff and clerks are infection-free.
Microsoft and UnitedHealth, which use the program for their own workers, are now offering the service to U.S. employers free of charge. The program will include resources and guidelines on Covid-19 testing schedules for different workers within an organization, based on their potential on-the-job exposure to the virus.
"A worker in a nursing home, for example, … we would want to be doing the symptom checking every single day, and then be put into a testing schedule that allows them to get tested, anywhere from three to… every five days," said Ken Ehlert, UnitedHealth Group chief scientific officer. "Different folks in the population need different levels of testing."
The ProtectWell app provides the worker with his or her test results and notifies the employer when a worker tests positive for the coronavirus.
"When we think about the broader perspective of enabling a safe return to work, it's imperative that employers also have that ability to be able to … act on that information, so that they can ensure that the workplace is safe" said Dr. David Rhew, Microsoft chief global medical officer.
The app will not provide tracking and contact tracing information, and while Microsoft's health-care bot will drive the symptom screening within the app, UnitedHealth will maintain control over the health data itself. Under occupational health and safety rules, workers' personal health information needs to be kept separate from personnel records.
"The challenge is about data management — how we aggregate testing information, safely permission it to reach the right people, use it to make workplace decisions," said Dr. Rajaie Batniji, co-founder of benefits firm Collective Health, which launched its own Covid back-to-work service this week.
Batniji says a testing program, when combined with social distancing and disinfecting practices, can help businesses lower the risk of a workplace outbreak to less than 5%.
The firm's Collective Go service is partnering with Bay Area start-ups Genalyte, Color and Everlywell to provide employers with on-site and at-home molecular testing for current infections, as well as antibody tests that can show whether a person was previously infected.
"We're seeing improvement … with regard to accuracy and scalability" of the antibody tests, said Batniji, but he adds that the firm is continually assessing the latest data on the reliability of various Covid-19 tests.
On Thursday ,the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about the accuracy of Abbott Labs' ID Now rapid Covid-19 tests, after a study from New York University suggested that the test resulted in a high number of false negatives.
UnitedHealth's Ehlert notes that availability could also be an issue for some employers to adopt wide-scale testing, so it will be important to prioritize testing programs for workers who are most at risk of getting sick.
"We are working within the capacity of trying to get the best tests available, make sure we have enough of them, and prioritize them," he said.
With the sharp drop in nonemergency diagnostic screening and testing due to the pandemic, new workplace programs could provide a much-needed boost to diagnostic testing firms and hospitals as they try rebound from the financial disruption caused by delayed procedures over the last two months.
New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System set up its own lab for processing Covid testing for its patients and staff and is now working with area employers to help them establish testing and health monitoring programs. CEO Warner Thomas says the return-to-work service will allow the hospital to redeploy clinicians who have been idled, while postponed elective surgery and other procedures are beginning to be rescheduled.
Quest Diagnostics CEO Stephen Rusckowski told analysts last month that reopening presents "substantial opportunities" for providing to testing for employers and municipalities "for overall surveillance within the population and returning to work."
LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter told CNBC that different parts of the economy will require varying levels of testing to bring workers back and has been in talks with employers to provide on and off-site screening for workers, including temperature checks.
It's unclear just how much employers will actually lean into widespread workforce coronavirus testing, but for many American workers it could become a job requirement while the threat of the pandemic remains, which could be for the foreseeable future.
"As a doctor, if I wasn't up to date on necessary vaccinations or screening, it's considered a safety issue for patients and co-workers," said Batniji. "This is a first for many (and) a cultural change for most Americans."
Correction: This story has been revised to correct the attribution of a quotation from a Microsoft official. The quote was from Dr. David Rhew, Microsoft's global chief medical officer.