By Tony Mecia
Dr. Jennifer Womack has a “go bag” at her house. It’s an IKEA duffel bag stuffed with medical gowns, N95 masks, nasal swabs and other testing equipment.
Womack, an internist who moved to Charlotte in 2014, is the leader of Team 1, a group of four healthcare workers with Tryon Medical Partners who stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to administer dozens of COVID-19 tests at once at workplaces around the country. Tryon has quietly assembled about a dozen of these teams.
This is the future of the workplace battle against the coronavirus: Administer widespread testing, and keep those who test positive quarantined at home. Most of the country isn’t close to getting there yet because tests are not widely available. But Tryon says it has managed to get ahold of plenty of kits, and its teams are conducting tests for companies eager to protect themselves against outbreaks.
Nowadays, the more common approach is that a worker complains of symptoms, falls ill and tests positive, and the company cleans its facility and hopes the virus hasn’t spread. If it has spread to other workers, companies routinely close their facilities, like the meat-processing plants that are leading to a nationwide shortage of chicken and pork. Widespread testing, on the other hand, can identify workers who are carrying and possibly spreading the virus but who aren’t showing symptoms.
‘Happy as clams’
Companies whose workers are tested “are happy as clams to have discovered those folks and gotten them out of there,” says Dr. Dale Owen, a cardiologist who serves as Tryon’s CEO.
Critical to the effort, Owen says, are the rapid-deployment medical-testing teams like the one headed by Dr. Womack: “It is done with surgical precision. It’s like a group of paratroopers going in and getting in and getting out.”
Womack agrees her team moves quickly. Last week, she got a call around noon and shipped out the next morning at 6:30. But she says she finds the paratrooper reference “a little bit dramatic”: “I would not compare myself to a paratrooper.”
On the move
When The Ledger talked to her on the phone this week, Womack was in an undisclosed Midwestern city and had just finished testing workers. (Tryon declined to name its clients, other than saying they are of all sizes and have included companies “critical to the foundation of the country.”) That afternoon, she was headed to a rural area in the South.
Team 1 consists of Womack, two nurses and a patient-care coordinator who handles some of the clerical work. Womack, wearing protective gear, administers the tests herself, usually outside. She sticks a swab way up a worker’s nose, which “feels like you got pricked in the brain,” she says.
Some workplaces are tested only once, while others are tested weekly or every two weeks. Tryon started developing the program in early April. Few companies offer similar services, though many think tanks have written papers saying widespread workplace testing is essential to helping combat the virus. Asked about pricing, Tryon said it varies based on the needs of the clients.
Some companies that aren’t doing comprehensive testing like Tryon’s are taking other measures, such as checking temperatures of workers when they come to work. This week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers have the right to test workers for the coronavirus. Workers who Tryon tests for the virus sign medical release forms so that results can be shared with employers.
Tryon has found a way to implement widespread testing for a number of clients as the state of North Carolina is still working to implement similar tactics.
At a news conference last week, asked about increased testing, Gov. Roy Cooper said, “We want to get our testing up to the point where we can go in and test at job sites where an employee has tested positive, to go in and test everybody. We want to be able to go in and test everyone at a nursing home where there’s an outbreak there and we want to increase testing all around.”
This month, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced a 12-member “testing surge workgroup,” the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
Womack, who usually works in Tryon’s uptown office, says the workers she tests seem appreciative of efforts to identify sick coworkers: “Most are very grateful that their employer is providing this service so they can continue to work.”
It’s also a change of pace for Womack, who went to medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University and finished her residency at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center.
“Doing this has been an experience I never thought I would have,” she said. “It’s a different way of giving back to our community.”