Testing, Testing: Arkansas’ reopening plan puts spotlight on COVID-19 screening, workplace policies

May 25-31, 2020

By Daily Record Staff


In Arkansas and other states across the U.S., May 18 represented a major step forward in reopening of the nation’s economy ahead of the Memorial Day weekend period that traditionally signals the beginning of the nation’s summer vacation season.


From local retailers and restaurants such as River City Coffee and Taziki’s Café to large well-known national brands and retail chains such as Landry’s, Hooters, and Nike, businesses far and wide are taking a gradual, cautious approach to bringing employees back to their workplaces as governments begin to lift restrictions tied to COVID-19.


According to a May 4 study by global real estate management and investment firm CBRE Group, most companies are implementing a wide range of new guidelines and screening methods to enhance reopenings in the wake of COVID-19 stay-at-home and social distancing policies.


“Our analysis of our clients’ return-to-work strategies shows that virtually all are engaged in detailed planning to ensure a careful and reasoned approach,” said Karen Ellzey, executive managing director of consulting for CBRE’s COVID-19 client response. “Most of these companies have established their own criteria for when to return to the workplace beyond local and state government requirements. And nearly three quarters plan to bring employees back in phases rather than all at once.”


For example, 45% of the companies will follow guidance from local governments and health agencies on social distancing in the workplace. Another 34% have set their own global standard that may exceed local guidance most typically requiring at least six feet or two meters of separation.


In addition, 59% of companies will provide face coverings for their employees. Twenty-eight percent of companies always plan to require face coverings at any company property. A larger portion – 42% – will require masks only at company facilities where mandated by local government or health-agency guidelines.


On the issue of COVID-19 testing, 45% percent will require off-site self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms by employees before they arrive at the workplace, while 13% will conduct screening of employees on-site at every facility. Of those allowing visitors, 35% will screen visitors on-site. However, only 21% of companies will allow visitors to the workplace in the early phases of reopening.


CBRE, which manages facilities and real estate projects for globally for large companies, manage 4.2 billion square feet of workspace in offices, industrial & logistics real estate, tech space, data centers, retail, and healthcare used by more than 38 million workers. The analysis includes data collected as of May 4, including CBRE commercial operations in Central and Northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma that encompasses four offices and more than 100 employees.


“With so many essential workers already performing their jobs at commercial properties, there is much that the industry is learning and adapting,” said Ellzey. “At the same time, companies must continually monitor local health conditions as they undertake further reopening efforts. Across the board, we see evidence that companies are taking a thoughtful, measured approach to reopening their work environments in a safe and methodical manner.”


As noted by the CBRE survey, one area most businesses are still nervous about in Arkansas and national is how to test for both the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV2, which causes COVID-19 disease, and for active COVID-19 infection among the workforce.


“Employers have heightened sensitivity to providing the safest work environments possible and they will need to thoughtfully offer resources that will help provide a healthy workplace,” said Dr. Rhonda Meadows, CEO of Ayin Health Solutions in Portland, Ore. “This includes social distancing measures as well as symptom monitoring for early detection and contact tracing – all occupational safety efforts newly redefined by the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Ayin Health, the health management company of Providence St. Joseph Health, the nation’s third-largest nonprofit health system with operations across the West Coast, has launched an end-to-end service called COVIDReady that integrates health screening, symptom assessment, testing services, monitoring and health care coordination for employers seeking to safely reengage staff returning to the workplace.


Meadows said Ayin Health’s testing services is designed to help organizations understand the health status of their employee populations and inform and manage employee health. 


Based on the White House’s nationwide testing blueprint released in late April, states must have 14 days of reduced COVID-19 cases and the hospital capacity to treat all COVID-19 patients without crisis care to enter Phase 1 of President Donald Trump’s three-phrase approach for reopening.


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Phase 1 further requires that vulnerable people continue to shelter-in-place, restricts gatherings to 10 people and minimizes non-essential travel. States should also be able to test those with COVID-19 symptoms and vulnerable groups such as nursing home residents and underserved groups in urban areas.


“We need to test everyone who is symptomatic, and we want to over-test them,” Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said on April 21 during a White House press briefings.




In his weekly radio address to Arkansans on May 15, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Arkansas state health officials and partners have set a goal of conducting 60,000 tests during the month of May. Hutchinson, who has sat in on several White House COVID-19 briefings, reiterated that a critical part of fighting COVID-19 is by increasing the availability of testing.


“If we are able to do 60,000 tests, that’s 2% of our state population and a key part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendations for ramping up states’ testing numbers,” said Hutchinson. “Since we had the first positive case in Arkansas on March 11, when we first declared the emergency, we started increasing our testing.”


As of May 14, Hutchinson noted that Arkansas had tested nearly 29,000 for the month, nearly halfway to the 60,000 goal. Since March 11, Arkansas has completed about 81,000 tests, he said, noting that the creation of the state Testing Advisory Group on April 21 to expand and increase testing in the state. 


“We have increased testing in high-risk settings, such as long-term care facilities,” said the Republican governor. “We have expanded testing to include all people who think they have been exposed to the virus, even if they aren’t showing symptoms.”


As part of the state’s testing program, Hutchinson has announced a new partnership with the Community Health Centers to provide over 2,000 test collections per week throughout the month of May to reach the 60,000 goal. Hutchinson, who provides a COVID-19 media update daily, also highlighted the state Health Department’s partnership with Walmart Stores Inc. to provide approximately 130 mobile testing units across the U.S. 


In Arkansas, Walmart has already announced testing sites operating in Bentonville, Little Rock, and Fort Smith, with additional sites scheduled soon for Jonesboro, Hot Springs, Texarkana, and West Memphis. 


In addition, the Arkansas Department of Health’s Local Health Units across the state also began offering COVID-19 testing on May 18 when businesses across the state began reopening. State health officials encourage all individuals who believe they have had contact with or been exposed to a positive case as well as anyone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath. 


At the state health units in 83 locations across the state’s 75 counties, tests will also be offered to anyone with or without symptoms who lives in or has traveled to an area experiencing active transmission.  Those seeking a test should confirm that the health unit is open and call ahead for an appointment so that staff can prepare and ensure safe spacing between patients, said state health officials.


Patients will be directed to self-collect specimens outside of the unit using a provided nasal swab and container. The specimens will then be sent to the state Public Health Laboratory. Results are typically made available within 48 to 72 hours, though it can take up to a week. Positive patients will be notified as soon as a result is available. 


There is no out-of-pocket cost for the tests, but insurance may be billed for patients who have it. To find a Health Department local site for COVID-19 testing, go here: https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/health-units


“During this Phase One period of lifting restrictions, we must expand our economy, but we have to manage the expansion to minimize the virus impact,” said Hutchinson. “If we’re in a war, radar tells us where the enemy is on the horizon. Testing is our radar system; and tracking is our first defense. It gives us an early warning capability for where there’s an increased potential of an outbreak so we can get a handle on it. And that is our objective.


“We have to learn to live and manage and work through the potential of COVID-19 in the next year until we get a vaccine. And to accomplish that, testing is a critical part having the proper infrastructure in place,” concluded Hutchinson.  


PHOTO CAPTION: (Photo courtesy of TY Garments of Little Rock)


COVID-19 testing, screening comes to the forefront in Arkansas as state reopens for business.