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Soupergirl co-owner Sara Polon spends $800 a week to test the 30 employees who staff her small soup business for COVID-19. She hired an infectious disease specialist who typically prepares Washingtonians for world travel. With business down, he’s pivoted to on-site testing during the pandemic. On Tuesdays, the private physician visits Soupergirl’s facility in Takoma, where healthy soups like gazpacho are prepared for local delivery and curbside pick-up. He also heads to the company’s production facility near Union Market, which handles Soupergirl’s wholesale distribution nationwide.
When the doctor is through administering the tests, they enter the same pool as the rests of tests completed in the District, most of which go to companies like LabCorp and Quest for processing. These companies are struggling to keep up with national demand. Polon isn’t paying for faster results, but for the convenience of not asking her employees to stand in line at public testing facilities like fire stations, where wait times can be lengthy.
“My basic thesis is that we as business owners have a responsibility to keep all stakeholders safe—meaning our customers, our staff, our vendors,” Polon says. Short of shutting down, she’s taken every precaution to protect her employees. She bought all staff members N95 masks and face guards, instituted temperature checks, set up comprehensive healthcare coverage, made both locations off limits to the public, and ensured employees didn’t have to take public transportation to work by engineering a carpool system.
But over the last month, she’s become exasperated, because she feels everything she’s doing still falls short. While Polon says wearing masks and social distancing are necessary components of curtailing the spread of the virus, she believes testing and contract tracing are equally if not more critical steps to take when it comes to protecting essential workers and the public they serve. But what good are tests if it takes too long to get the results back?
“In the beginning it was great,” she says. “We were testing on Tuesdays and had the results by Friday. And then it started getting longer and longer. On July 22, we got the results from July 7. This is useless. If there’s an outbreak, I’ll find out too late.”
Crystal R. Watson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, recently told thePost that long delays make contract-tracing a fool’s errand: “By the time a person is getting results, they already have symptoms, their contacts may already have symptoms and have gone on to infect others.”
Asked about current testing turnaround times in the District, a representative from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office says that patients should “expect a turnaround time between five to seven days on average,” and that “nationwide demand for LabCorp’s testing capacity can increase wait times.”
In fact, at her July 15 press conference, Bowser said D.C. had “maxed” its internal capacity and reiterated that D.C. residents are seeing longer turnaround times due to the demand for testing nationwide.
A national strategy for fixing an overwhelmed system that needs to be ramped up and sped up is exactly what Polon wants. She asked President Donald Trump about his approach at a Fox News town hall in early May and says she’s frustrated that little has changed since then, even as many states are seeing spikes in cases and hospitalizations.
“What kind of federal protocols are going to be in place for testing to ensure that my potential customers and staff feel safe when people are leaving their homes?” Polon asked Trump via video message. “For example, if someone comes from another state that doesn’t have the same testing standards as another, and they both come to my establishment, how are we all going to feel safe?
Trump’s response didn’t touch on testing:
“It depends on where you’re coming from. New York is a very much different place than Montana or many other states really where it’s not too bad. It’s always bad news. Anybody it’s bad. Every state has lost significant numbers of people, whether you’re talking about 20 people or 25 people, that’s a significant number of people. But it depends on where you come from. Certain states are going to have to take a little more time in getting open and they’re doing that. Some states I think frankly aren’t going fast enough. Virginia, they want to close down to the middle of June. A lot of things they’re doing. I really believe you can go to parks. You can go to beaches. You keep the spread, you stay away a certain amount. I really think the public has been incredible. That’s one of the reasons we’re successful—if you call losing 80 or 90,000 people successful. But it’s one of the reasons that we’re not at the high end of the plane.”
With the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop of the conversation, the moderator jumped in to fact check the number of lives lost quoted by the president. “That number has changed.”
Polon knows she’s in a better financial position than many local businesses striving to simultaneously keep their workers healthy and stay in business, but it can only last so long. “This is not sustainable long-term,” she says. “I’m looking at my business model and my pricing. We’ll have to raise our prices on delivery. I will eventually run out of money.”
If the national strategy is to focus on opening the economy, Polon says access to testing with rapid results has to happen with accompanying guidance for business owners for what happens if someone tests positive. She’d like to see the federal government foot the bill for a fleet of doctors who prioritize testing essential workers who work in places like food production facilities and restaurants. “How can [Major League Baseball] get results back the same day and essential workers can’t?”