By Garick Hismatulin, co-founder and CEO of Kyla
Although the panic has subsided, COVID-19 promises to be with us for many years, perhaps generations. People are resilient and we are seeing a return to normalcy, including the return of events and large gatherings. But since the virus isn’t fully eradicated, the challenge now is controlling exposure and limiting infection, which means having some COVID screening protocols to make events safe.
New virus strains are emerging every few weeks, and although the more recent versions don’t seem to be as deadly, we must still be cautious to prevent future pandemics. Medical experts predict that the COVID pandemic is becoming endemic and will drop to baseline levels in the coming months and become more predictable. However, we will still need to be watchful to ensure endemic infections don’t rise to pandemic levels.
The Center for Disease Control recommends precautions for large gatherings, such as ensuring vaccines are up to date and wearing a mask when appropriate. Those at risk from a COVID infection are encouraged to take extra precautions, and testing before attending events can limit the spread of the disease.
The COVID pandemic has already cost the meetings industry more than $211 billion and experts estimate it will ultimately mean losses of $522 billion in spending in the U.S. alone. Along with recovery from the pandemic, events will also have to rebound.
However, testing attendees of large gatherings such as sporting events and conferences present unique challenges. Some form of screening is advisable to prevent a COVID outbreak. For example, the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has strict protocols for gatherings of 100 or more, including proof of vaccination or a COVID test 24 hours in advance. The Events Industry Council has also gathered various COVID guidelines for industry events.
If the last two years have taught event organizers anything, it’s to be prepared. Once COVID becomes endemic, it is still likely to spike periodically. In addition to seasonal spikes, circumstances such as the war in Ukraine and the migration of unvaccinated refugees could cause a resurgence. County and state regulations regarding masks and inoculations also tend to change quickly. How can event planners include COVID testing for attendees?
The real challenge is logistics. Testing a large number of people on-site before an event is impractical. Using antigen tests, the same tests people use at home, won’t work. Most antigen tests take 15 minutes to show results, and even with the most effective testing equipment, you can’t do more than 300 tests per hour. Testing on-site for large crowds, such as a concert or sports event, would be too time consuming.
Even if you plan to use antigen tests for a smaller event, like a business conference, the results of antigen tests aren’t always accurate. The FDA estimates that 70 out of 100 antigen tests could show a false positive.
A better approach is to build in enough time to have a third party do COVID testing in advance of the event. Certified COVID test labs typically use Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, a DNA test for the virus that is more than 96% accurate. Collaborating with a COVID testing lab that can offer test results in 24 hours is the best way to protect event attendees and staff.
Many regions are already asking citizens to carry vaccine passports that they can present at the gate as part of admission. For those without vaccine passports, showing a valid negative COVID test from the previous 24 to 48 hours would serve the same purpose.
The easiest way to ensure that event attendees are COVID-free is to arrange for testing in advance. Event organizers can work with local labs to arrange for COVID testing as part of ticket purchases or event registration. Attendees could opt to get tested at a local clinic or test site or request a home test kit that would send samples back to the lab.
By working with a certified lab, event organizers can arrange for testing in advance and the test results stored so they are associated with a ticket holder or registrant. Alternately, attendees can access their own test results and bring a printout or a QR code stored on their smartphone. The process would be similar to getting a seat assignment and an electronic boarding pass for a flight.
Many commercial testing companies, such as Kyla, have downloadable mobile apps to access COVID test results. After the samples are submitted, the results are posted for secure access online, showing either positive or negative results. Using a barcode or QR scanner would make it fast and easy to screen attendees at the door or gate.
Using a third-party test lab offers advantages to both event organizers and attendees. For attendees, they get fast, secure test results. The relationship between a client and the lab is the same as with a doctor, so test results are private and protected. No personal health information is shared, and the client has to consent to share the test results (i.e., COVID positive or negative).
For event organizers, using a third-party lab is a cost-effective way to screen for COVID. The volume of tests substantially reduces the cost-per-test. Plus, using a qualified lab ensures that test results are timely and that services can scale to meet demand.
While it’s still unclear how society will deal with COVID-19 to prevent a future pandemic, anyone planning a large event needs to be ready. Having a commercial COVID test lab on call is always a smart move.