As the pandemic persists and society faces reopening within limitations, the event industry is navigating many complex issues. Recently, we provided event planners with an in-depth guide to safety considerations and options for holding the safest in-person events possible. It goes without saying: All the planning, screening, and sanitizing in the world can only mitigate the inherent risk that comes with holding events right now. But what if there was a way to more significantly reduce the risk of infection spread at events?
One emerging idea is to require attendees to be tested for the coronavirus prior to attending any event. It’s a notion that seems to hold some promise, but is fraught with variables such as cost, timing, and reliability of testing.
For one thing, the time that elapses between getting a test and receiving results varies from state to state. For example, in New Jersey, it’s possible to get results from the standard nasal swab test within 48 hours. But in some other states, such as Nevada, test results typically take as long as 7 days to come back. Testing attendees within 48 hours of an event presumably has some mitigating effect, but it’s far from a perfect solution. Within the 48 hours prior to an event, attendees are presumably not sitting around in their homes; they are shopping, visiting with family and friends, and going about their daily lives (hopefully in a relatively ‘socially distant’ manner, but that’s far from a given).
Still, it would be reassuring to know that all attendees at your event tested negative for the coronavirus approximately two days before your event- as opposed to having been tested in the more distant past, or never having been tested at all. The chances of contracting the virus within two days are generally less than the chances of contracting it within the last 14 days, which we all know by now is the maximum incubation period for COVID-19.
But the availability of testing is an issue. No, tests are no longer obscure, and have become readily available in most situations. But obtaining a COVID-19 test involves getting a prescription from a doctor and physically going to a doctor’s office or testing center. Sometimes it’s necessary to call and make an appointment; even some of the “drive-thru” testing requires appointments in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed or not having enough tests available daily. That said, it may be difficult for attendees to get an appointment in the right time frame to present their negative results at your event (or avoid showing up if their results are positive). It’s also possible to test negative early in the illness, and then test positive later on.
You may have heard about rapid COVID-19 tests, which provide results within 15 minutes. If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it usually is. This test is an antigen test, which is similar in function to a rapid strep test. However, the antigen test does not have the same accuracy rate as the more sensitive, standard COVID-19 PCR test, which takes at least 48 hours to yield results. Furthermore, the antigen test only shows positive results if the person being tested is actively having symptoms of the coronavirus. This test is not an indicator of an asymptomatic carrier, which is the greatest danger when it comes to events.
Although symptoms of COVID-19 can be mild in some people, many (although unfortunately not all) have the sense to quarantine until tested if they experience them. However, carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes the illness) can be asymptomatic for up to 14 days before showing signs of illness.
At-home Test Kits as a Possible Solution: Facts and Fiction
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of using at-home COVID-19 testing as a risk prevention strategy for in-person events. But the FDA has authorized a few at-home collection molecular tests. Some examples include tests by LetsGetChecked, Vault Health, Everlywell, and a test called Pixel by LabCorp. A study by the UnitedHealth Group indicates that results from these at-home swab tests have a similar accuracy rate to swab tests collected by providers.
These tests are conveniently easy to use; instead of nose or throat swabs, there is a device with which to collect saliva from the mouth. The sample is mailed to the lab, where it then is processed. Vault Health requires video supervision by a provider in order to mail the test for processing, which basically ensures that the person taking the test is doing it right. Most results come back within 3 to 5 days of mailing the sample.
The Cost of Prevention
These at-home testing kits usually cost somewhere between $150 and $200, which is a comparatively low cost when considering the costs it can potentially cut on the day of your event. Testing would come at no cost to attendees. As we discussed in recent articles, the CDC has pages upon pages of safety recommendations for in-person events, all of which are costly. Sanitation protocols, adequate signage and broadcasting, space and programming that accommodates social distancing rules, and contingency plans if guests should exhibit symptoms are all exorbitant added costs. And let’s not forget that event capacity decreases with social distancing guidelines, resulting in loss of revenue at many events.
So let’s get down to it: Could requiring attendees to be tested prior to events really create coronavirus-free environments? The biggest problem still lies in the time it takes for accurate results to come back. Even when testing only takes 48 hours, attendees can still potentially contract the virus in that amount of time. Assuming they go about their lives from the time of testing until the date of an event, there is still risk of becoming a carrier before the event takes place. Attendees may go grocery shopping, visit family and friends, and attend work after being tested. All of these activities pose a risk of contracting the virus. Although social distancing and wearing masks helps significantly reduce this risk, it still exists.
Our verdict: Requiring testing prior to events mitigates risk significantly, but it doesn’t justify easing up on sanitation protocols and social distancing. That said, is it really as cost-effective as some innovators are suggesting? Not yet, but we don’t want to throw out this idea entirely. It mitigates a lot of risk and has potential as testing improves. Right now, all we have are projections to work with.
How Would Your Attendees Feel About Mandatory COVID-19 Testing?
Logistically, requiring all attendees to show up to a designated site and be tested using your kit has its own set of complications. Society is currently very divided in their attitudes about the risk of coronavirus at events. Some flat-out don’t care about the risk. They rationalize their lack of regard for the virus with narratives that range from “The media exaggerates its deadliness” to “You can’t live your life in fear” to “It’s a hoax”. These people will attend events despite the risk, and may be less likely to attend an event that requires them to be tested.
There are also those who would like to start attending events again, but are worried about the risk, and research individual events to assess it as accurately as possible. These consumers want to make decisions that are as educated as possible; their goal is to participate in normal life to the extent that it’s possible while minimizing their risk as much as possible. Of all attendees, this group is the most likely to view COVID-19 test prior to events as a positive development. People who take this standpoint may also see pre-event testing as a potential new standard for reopening more successfully.
There are also those who would never attend an in-person event during a pandemic. Whether this is due to underlying health and work considerations or just understandable fear of the virus, there are still many people who are not willing to take the risk that exists in even the safest environments.
And remember, venues would need to cooperate and require all employees to be tested, too. Otherwise, the entire protocol would be ineffective. The objective is to require everyone who will be in the event space on the day of the event to have a negative COVID-19 test.
Will venues cooperate? That, of course, is a variable. Whether venues are willing to participate in a COVID-19 testing protocol may depend on the perceived risk in the specific area. Keep in mind that you may not always see eye to eye with prospective venues about risk factors and protocols. So if preventative testing does become a workable alternative to canceling large events, it will be important to find compatible venues. Again, this can be relatively easy or very difficult depending on your location.
It’s difficult to predict the effectiveness and cost of a protocol that has not yet been put into practice. That said, as new, more sophisticated tests continue to be in development, it’s possible that some will offer quicker, more accurate results. So far, the only reliable rapid tests cannot be performed at home, but they may change as technology races to catch up with this pandemic. Obviously, there is still a long way to go until mandatory COVID-19 testing can be mainstreamed- if it happens at all. As progress continues to be made and new solutions become available, we will continue to keep you in the know.