Memphis Restaurants Turning to Routine COVID Testing for Added "Assurance"

Nov 6, 2020


Some local businesses plan on conducting regular COVID-19 testing for their employees.
Credit Katie Riordan

A COVID-19 testing program aimed at finding asymptomatic carriers of the virus is growing to include some Memphis restaurants and other businesses. 

Under the guidance of infectious disease expert Dr. Manoj Jain, the City of Memphis' “Test to Protect” program, was first implemented this summer with some city employees and in about a dozen private and charter schools.

Dr. Jain says that additional testing, along with continued masking and social distancing, will help curb the spread of the virus.  

“We really need to get into this culture of testing as a modality to make things safer,” he says.  

The program promotes regular group testing of every employee at a workplace in what’s known as assurance or surveillance testing. The idea is that it might discover workers who don’t know they have Covid-19 so they can be quickly isolated and limit their exposure to others. Up to an estimated 40 percent of infected people never show symptoms

While the city is covering the cost of testing for schools, businesses will foot the bill for their staff. Local labs are able to reduce the cost to between $5 and $15 per employee by using a method known as pool testing. In this approach, nasal swabs are self-administered and then combined together for a single screening. Only if a pooled sample comes back positive are additional tests required to find the positive case or cases.

The Cocozza American Italian restaurant downtown is one of 24 that have initially signed up to participate in the program. For owner Deni Reilly, it’s just one extra cost of doing business during the pandemic.  

“It’s just the right thing to do,” she says.

She was already requiring her dozen employees to test biweekly on their own. This new program will bring the testing in-house and quicken the process. Results are expected in less than 12 hours.  

“We’ll be able to do it more regularly, and we’ll be able to do it on days that we’re closed,” she says. “So therefore, we can isolate people faster and make sure that they get the help they need and that everybody else is negative.”  

Using the pool testing method, local labs say they can process up to 30,000 tests a day, giving the city significant capacity to sign up additional businesses. 

Dr. Jain recommends restaurants begin by testing employees once a week but frequency can be adjusted based on changing positivity rates. 

Still, he says routine testing shouldn’t create a false sense of security. 

“This is what people think: they’ll say, ‘Okay, we tested negative, and everything is hunky dory,’ he says. “No. We still have to mask. We still have to distance. We still have to wash our hands. This is an added safety strategy."