​​​COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mandated weekly COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated workers could create a larger demand for testing in the U.S., but that depends on whether a federal vaccine mandate survives an ongoing legal fight.

What You Need To Know

  • Some companies are already moving forward with weekly testing requirements

  • If a federal mandate takes effect, millions of workers would need regular testing

  • Unvaccinated employees could be required to find tests on their own in the community

With the future of the federal rule uncertain, employers are taking mixed approaches toward policies for their workforces. 

Weekly testing policies are going into effect at many companies as they prepare for possible implementation of a mandate. Some employers are contracting with testing services to make it easy for their unvaccinated employees to get test results at no cost, while other employees have been required to seek testing in the community on their own.

In Cincinnati, unvaccinated police officers have been subject to a testing requirement since late October. Fraternal Order of Police President Sgt. Dan Hils said many officers have been getting free tests at a drive-thru site run by Gravity Diagnostics, which is a fairly convenient option for now. But it’s unclear how that might change if requirements are extended to a much larger swath of workers in the region. 

The city offers some testing at police districts and provides an hour of paid time for officers to get the bi-weekly tests that are required. 

“I think that it is absolutely ridiculous,” Hils said. “Why are you only testing unvaccinated? If we're worried about the spread, we already know that vaccinated people carry this virus and can spread this virus.” 

Hils said many of the roughly 40-50% of officers, who are unvaccinated, have contracted COVID-19 already and don’t feel they should have to be tested weekly. Others are concerned about myocarditis risks with the vaccine, and they aren’t as worried about the virus because they are young and healthy. Of the many police officers who’ve gotten sick, none have ended up on a ventilator or died, Hils said.

“Unless it came down to more or less putting you at gunpoint as far as firing you — they can email out $100 gift cards, they can do all sorts of stuff — and the people have made up their mind,” he said.

The vaccine, or weekly testing requirement for employees of large companies is being considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati after its implementation was paused by a federal court. The Biden administration has asked the court to lift the stay, arguing that a delay could mean more unnecessary virus deaths.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has suspended implementation of its emergency temporary standards (ETS) requiring vaccination or testing, the agency said it is confident it has the authority to enact the rule.

Troy Evans, who owns a clinical reference laboratory with locations in Cincinnati and Nashville, said he was on the phone with a client Tuesday that is trying to come up with a weekly testing solution for its employees, more than 7,500 of whom are currently unvaccinated. 

“With the ETS and with surveillance testing, we're working with a number of employers, and employees for that matter, and that's where you're going to see this large uptake in volume with testing,” said Evans. 

His company, Industry Lab Diagnostic Partners, runs PCR tests for providers including hospitals and long-term care facilities. He said they have been performing thousands of tests per day, with demand quite high recently due to the holidays, travel and school-related needs. 

A surge in testing needs would strain labor, equipment and supply chain capabilities of some testing labs and potentially lead to delays for results or limited availability of tests, but Evans said established labs, like his, are confident that they can handle mass volume. 

Evans said he anticipates more serious shortages around the supply of rapid tests and at-home tests than PCRs. 

Procter & Gamble, headquartered in Cincinnati, has committed to offering unvaccinated employees no-cost tests after a January deadline for providing vaccination status. The company pushed back an earlier deadline citing the limited availability of tests at the time.

Nationwide Insurance, based in Columbus, has also announced that it will cover the cost of testing for unvaccinated employees. The company said its policy may be adjusted dependent on the outcome of legal challenges to the federal mandate.

The OSHA mandate would apply to about 80 million workers. While federal officials project that a large share of those individuals will have chosen to get vaccinated, millions of workers would likely need weekly tests, and the testing demand would be particularly high in states like Ohio with low vaccination rates.

The U.S. is currently testing about 1.8 million people per day. The Biden administration forecasts that testing availability will continue to improve, touting its procurement of 280 million rapid tests and expansion of testing at retail pharmacies. 

Demand from employers for testing is already rising as companies prepare for the mandate, but testing needs would shoot up if the companies that have been taking a wait-and-see approach were required to comply.

Worthington Industries, a Columbus-based metals manufacturing company with 9,000 employees said it has suspended its implementation of the requirement due to the temporary halt, spokesperson Sonya Higginbotham said.

KeyBank, headquartered in Cleveland, said it is closely reviewing the matter and continuing to encourage vaccination. Cleveland-Cliffs, a flat-rolled steel producer, has not enacted a requirement, but company officials said they have made preparations to be in compliance if the federal mandate takes effect.

In addition to the mandate for large employers, two other federal vaccine mandates have been halted. They are more stringent mandates that do not have an option for weekly testing.

On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the mandate for health care workers nationwide in facilities that receive funding from government health care programs. Before the block was implemented, a temporary injunction was placed in 10 states. On the same day, a separate federal judge temporarily blocked the mandate for federal contractors in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.