A business spends $800 a week to test staff for COVID-19. Could rapid, cheap tests help?

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An employee at Soupergirl soup company in Washington, D.C., undergoes a throat test prior to starting a shift. Courtesy Soupergirl

(Akshay Syal & Patrick Martin/ NBC News) —  Sara Polon spends $800 dollars each week on coronavirus tests for the staffers at her Washington, D.C., business, but sometimes the test results don’t come back for weeks.

Polon, 43, owns Soupergirl, a small soup company that has managed to stay open during the pandemic. Polon wanted to reassure her 30 full-time and part-time employees that she was trying to protect their health, so she’s been covering their weekly coronavirus tests since early June. But the national lab where the results are processed has significant backlogs.

“If I’m getting results 2 1/2 weeks later, I might as well just take that $800 and flush it down the toilet,” Polon told NBC News. “I’m just at the mercy of these national labs, and it’s petrifying.”

What Polon needs is a cheaper test with fast results that her employees could use at home, experts say. To ease the overwhelmed testing system, a growing number of doctors are calling for the U.S. to overhaul how it detects COVID-19.

Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health wants the U.S. to support more antigen tests, which can offer faster results with less lab work. Doctors already use antigen tests to diagnose infectious illnesses like influenza or strep throat, and while they are not as sensitive as the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, widespread use of them could ease lab delays and help control “burning epidemics” across the U.S., Mina said. Mina describes them as “transmission blocking tests” because they could identify people who are most infectious and likely to spread the virus. (…)

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