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Could regular testing of workers slow the spread of COVID-19?

NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen talks to experts and business leaders about how rapid testing can help reopen offices and more.
/ Source: TODAY

As the vaccine rollout continues, many in the United States are seeing a potential end to the coronavirus pandemic. While the vaccines will play an important role in reopening the economy, experts also say that frequent, rapid testing will also make a difference.

NBC News consumer and investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen spoke to medical experts and business leaders about the initiative.

Some organizations, like Genpact, a digital consulting company, are giving employees the option to be tested twice a week using rapid tests. Employees like Nichelle Boyland just get a quick nose swab and within minutes find out their results. If it's positive, she has to go home and isolate; if the test is negative, she goes into the office. Boyland told Nguyen the test gives her "total peace of mind."

"We want to return to work, but we want to do it safely," said Boyland. "And this helps us do it safely."

Genpact CEO Tiger Tyagarajan told Nguyen that the process has improved employee morale and boosted confidence in the company's efforts to keep workers safe.

Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been advocating for frequent, rapid testing since the pandemic began. He and other health experts believe that systems like Genpact's will reduce the spread of disease, and reassure employees that their coworkers are not infectious. Mina said that the rapid testing could also be used in schools.

"Even in the midst of recurring cases and some variants, we might be able to see those schools be able to remain open, see the workplaces remain open, even if spread is ongoing in the community," Mina said.

While there are misconceptions that rapid tests are not accurate, Mina said they will "catch people who are sick before they even know" they have the coronavirus.

"Rapid antigen tests can be very accurate, in particular when used with frequency, say twice a week," Mina said. "They will be very sensitive to detect people when they are infectious."

In February, Mina worked with Citibank to conduct a study to see how effective rapid testing was. Six thousand employees tested themselves at home three times a week, and the results are uploaded to an application. Mina said that the system was effective "almost immediately." The study will continue until June.

"We began finding infected individuals, who would have otherwise gone to work, not knowing that they were positive and transmissible that day," Mina said. Genpact is finding similar results among their employees. While their program is voluntary, the company says about 70% of workers are taking part and will soon switch to at-home testing, which Mina said is the best way to limit spread.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also agree, listing frequent testing as an effective strategy, especially when paired with measures like masking and social distancing. The agency recommends weekly testing, especially for businesses where employees are close together or interact with the public.

Workers interested in frequent testing don't have to wait for their company to set something up: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave emergency use authorizations (EUAs) to two at-home tests that can be purchased over the counter and will be available in retail pharmacies. Official prices haven't been set yet, but Mina told Nguyen that it's likely to cost around $20 for two tests. Nguyen recommends checking with your insurance provider to make sure there won't be any out-of-pocket costs.

If you do receive a positive test on an at-home rapid antigen test, the CDC recommends getting a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result. Even if you are vaccinated, it can be helpful to test frequently: Mina advises doing it before seeing someone who's vulnerable to severe COVID-19, or asking guests at a large event like a wedding to test themselves in advance. At-home rapid testing can also provide peace of mind, reassuring people that they haven't picked up a COVID-19 variant or had a breakthrough infection.