Although the U.S. has ramped up the production and distribution of kits in recent days, many Americans with suspected cases or possible exposure are still having a difficult time actually getting tested for COVID-19.
Many health care professionals — including the country’s in-home care workers — are experiencing the exact same challenge.
The National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC), the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare (PQHH) and other home-based care advocates have repeatedly highlighted the need to increase the accessibility of COVID-19 testing for the safety of workers and patients alike. Still, most emergency response efforts associated with test production largely focus on testing within in-patient settings.
During a national briefing on Sunday, for example, Vice President Mike Pence noted that the federal government is encouraging all labs to “prioritize in-patient testing” above all else.
“We have been in contact and are engaged with Congress, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on where home care fits with the virus,” NAHC President William A. Dombi recently said in an online video. “The current state of the novel coronavirus risks in the United States requires that the entire health care community evaluate its readiness and action plans to address an emerging pandemic.”
While the federal government is prioritizing in-patient testing, there are some businesses trying to fill the gaps in the home setting. They include Austin, Texas-based at-home medical testing company Everlywell, which began shipping out tens of thousands of coronavirus testing kits this week.
“We identified a big gap in the overall testing infrastructure more than four weeks back,” George England, Everlywell’s vice president of enterprise strategy, told Home Health Care News. “We put out a call to action to quickly ramp up our laboratory network.”
Founded in 2015, Everlywell has traditionally marketed its testing kits on a direct-to-consumer basis or through retail channels, with tests available on the shelves of CVS Health, Korger and a few other large chains. Over the past several years, the company has also developed inroads within the Medicare Advantage (MA) space.
Apart from COVID-19, Everlywell offers dozens of tests related to heart health, food sensitivity and more. The company has raised more than $50 million since launching, according to Crunchbase.
Initially, Everlywell planned to make 30,000 COVID-19 testing kits available to consumers at the start of this week, selling them at no profit to the company. After seeing the dire need, however, it quickly changed its tune and decided to make tests only available to frontline health care workers.
“These frontline health care workers just are absolutely drowning in the need to be tested,” England said. “So, we have shifted focus to help them. They’re needed so badly to be able to help the rest of the population get testing, but they could also be a carrier source. We want to help make sure that if someone does have positive COVID-19 [case], they can properly self-quarantine and not affect others.”
Of the 30,000 tests that Everlywell has started shipping out this week, roughly half have gone to in-home health care providers, according to England.
Besides protecting their workers and patients, some home health providers are likely interested in securing tests to avoid losses associated with individuals refusing care or canceling visits.
“What we’re hearing is a lot of in-home health care companies saying that members are not answering the door for scheduled appointments because they’re just scared that someone might be bringing coronavirus into the home,” England said.
Everlywell anticipates that’s going to be an ongoing behavioral trend, one that lasts for at least three to 12 months, he noted.
After this week, Everlywell plans to continue ramping up its stock of COVID-19 tests, building up to where it can accommodate more than 250,000 screenings per week.
In-patient testing is important, but there are several reasons why in-home COVID-19 testing should also be a priority.
For starters, being able to confirm a suspected coronavirus case as a negative could keep an individual out of the hospital at a time when bed capacity and human resources are extremely limited.
Additionally, allowing frail, older adults to test at home means they never have to risk contracting the coronavirus while travelling to an in-patient setting, likely mingling with dozens of other strangers.
“With this population, the risk for them to go out into the public — even to their traditional physician office visits or as the hospital — adds greater risk and oftentimes unnecessary risk. It’s just a matter of them mitigating their exposure to the coronavirus.”
In terms of the process, Everlywell’s tests are meant to be relatively intuitive and simple.
If a home health provider is interested in securing tests, Everlywell will send out “a block of test kits,” which the provider can then distribute among its staff. The test itself comes in the form of a small package with color-coded instructions and necessary materials.
Once the test is completed, providers can overnight the package to Everlywell’s lab. Results typically are returned within three to five days.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration noted that the U.S. had tested more than 300,000 people for the coronavirus.