Tech

Amazon is planning to build diagnostic labs as it ramps up Covid-19 testing for warehouse workers

Key Points
  • Amazon aims to test the bulk of its workers for Covid-19 every two weeks.
  • To this end, the company is setting up its own Covid-19 testing labs at its fulfillment centers. 
  • Amazon's warehouse workers who test positive are referred to a third-party, Grand Rounds, for telehealth consultations. 
An Amazon worker prepares a hand-washing station in a warehouse during coronavirus pandemic
Amazon

Amazon is ramping up its plans to test its fulfillment center workers for coronavirus after several outbreaks at its warehouses. 

The goal, according to three people familiar with the company's plans, is to test the bulk of the company's warehouse workers every two weeks. Workers would test themselves with nasal swabs, using a video for guidance, with a clinical professional supervising.

The move would require Amazon to roll out millions of tests throughout the summer. That's in line with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' pronouncement in April, when he told shareholders that he hoped the company would soon begin "regular testing of all Amazonians, including those showing no symptoms."

The people who spoke to CNBC asked not to be named discussing internal company matters. 

Amazon has already ramped up its testing of warehouse workers following outbreaks of Covid-19 in New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Oregon, among other states. By ramping up Covid-19 testing, it is hoping to stem the spread of the virus before it gets out of control. The company previously said it would invest its expected Q2 profit of $4 billion into its Covid-19 response, and will spend $1 billion on testing throughout the year.

In addition to collecting nasal swabs, the company is planning to develop standalone diagnostic labs in several sites, starting off in Sunnyvale, California, and in Kentucky, the people said. These labs would analyze some of the samples to see if they're positive or negative. Medical diagnostics has long been an area of interest for Amazon.

An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that the company has launched a testing pilot program at a handful of fulfillment centers. The company declined to disclose which facilities have launched testing sites so far. It also declined to comment on whether it plans to test corporate employees for the coronavirus. 

"We've started our first small-scale testing pilot," an Amazon spokesperson told CNBC. "We don't know exactly yet how it's going to shape up, but we continue to believe it's worth trying."

To aid the process, Amazon has built a dedicated team that's working to develop coronavirus testing capacity. The team is made up of research scientists, program managers, procurement specialists and software engineers -- all essential personnel for building out new labs. 

That team appears to be growing. Amazon's hardware group Lab126, based in Sunnyvale, California, is hiring three additional research scientists in diagnostics to help scale its testing efforts, according to recent job postings. Lab126 is also hiring several lab assistants, engineers and scientists in Hebron, Kentucky. 

Some of the key Amazon employees participating on calls with external partners about the project include Douglas Wiebel, a scientist and engineer who has been at the company for almost six years; Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist recruited to Amazon Care; Matt Wood, a general manager of artificial intelligence at Amazon AWS; and Taha Kass Hout, a former government health official also working for AWS.

The company is also looking at other mechanisms to test workers beyond nasal swabs. It's exploring pulse oximetry screening, which measures oxygen levels in the blood, according to two of the people. Pulse oximeters, which are small devices that fit onto the fingertip, are suspected by some scientists to identify a subgroup of patients with respiratory symptoms. The company is also exploring more regular temperature checks. 

Amazon has not disclosed its plans publicly, but has consulted with academic centers and other groups about the scope of the project. 

Grand Rounds handling consultations for positive employees

The Amazon workers who test positive or experience symptoms are referred to a company called Grand Rounds, a venture-backed start-up that provides online medical consultations. During those consultations, a medical professional walks the worker through the risks and tells them to stay home or seek followup care. Those who test negative don't typically hear from a Grand Rounds representative, but the company has told fulfillment center workers that its service is available to answer questions about the virus. 

Amazon is contracting with a third party because laws prevent corporations from practicing medicine or employing a physician to provide professional medical services.

The Amazon workers who test positive or experience symptoms are referred to a company called Grand Rounds, a venture-backed start-up that provides online medical consultations.

Grand Rounds can also provide Amazon employees with the proper documents needed to be approved for two weeks of paid quarantine leave (their own doctors can also help with that). Amazon in March told employees it would provide them with up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they show symptoms, have the virus or are in quarantine. Despite this, multiple Amazon workers told CNBC they received no pay or were given 60% of their typical paycheck, even though they met the requirements for paid sick leave. 

The Grand Rounds service is primarily marketed to fulfillment center workers through their intranet, dubbed AtoZ.  Employees can access an online portal, download the Grand Rounds app or call a 1-800 number to access Covid-19 resources and check their symptoms if they feel they may have been exposed to the virus. CNBC called the 1-800 number provided to employees and a recorded message said it was the "Amazon employee line of Grand Rounds." 

An Amazon warehouse worker, who asked to remain anonymous, told CNBC that Amazon first launched its tele-health partnership with Grand Rounds in March. 

Grand Rounds has not disclosed its relationship with Amazon, but the company has been hiring medical personnel in sites that overlap with Amazon's warehouse facilities, including in Reno, Nevada, and Lewiston, Maine.

The Amazon spokesperson confirmed that the company began its partnership with Grand Rounds in March. Grand Rounds declined to comment. 

With testing development underway, Amazon has added new measures to keep warehouse employees safe, like temperature checks, mandatory personal protective gear and increased deep cleanings. Despite this, the company faces growing calls from warehouse workers, politicians and state attorneys general to do more to protect workers from the coronavirus. Critics argue the company should expand its paid sick leave policies and close warehouses for cleaning when there are positive cases, among other demands.