The Impact of COVID-19 on Drug Testing

The Impact of COVID-19 on Drug Testing

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created hesitation as far as workplace drug testing is concerned, it can still be done in a safe and effective manner.

The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for what could be the greatest economic collapse of all time. Since March 1, 2020, thousands of businesses have been forced to close their doors—at least temporarily—causing literally millions of Americans to become unemployed. Now, over half a year later, employers are anxious to reopen their businesses and those who lost jobs are eager to find employment and get back to work.

While states are taking plans to reopen at different speeds, one constant remains—the question of workplace drug testing and safety during the pandemic. This article will give an overview of the general impact of COVID-19 on the industry, alternative testing methods during the pandemic and best practices for returning to work.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Drug Testing

A recent survey performed by the Current Consulting Group (CCG) found that since the start of the pandemic, 21 percent of employers have reported a drop of 61 percent or more in the number of drug tests that they perform on employees. This could be due to a variety of reasons—a drop in the number of individuals being tested due to high unemployment rates, more employees working from home and general concern about workplace drug testing safety and COVID-19 precautions, to name a few.

The CDC has issued a myriad of guidelines and recommendations pertaining to workplace safety during the pandemic. The CDC advises employers to:

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
  • Consider conducting daily in-person health checks such as symptom and/or temperature screening
  • Identify how and where employees may be exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace
  • Separate sick employees
  • Take action based on suspected and/or confirmed COVID-19 infections
  • Educate employees about protective steps to take at work and home
  • Implement flexible sick leave policies and practices
  • Protect higher risk employees
  • Communicate workplace policies clearly and effectively
  • Have a plan should absenteeism spike
  • Establish social distancing policies and practices
  • Improve building ventilation systems
  • Provide individuals with supplies to maintain clean hands and cover coughs and sneezes
  • Perform routine cleaning in the workplace
  • Perform enhanced cleaning after individuals with suspected/confirmed COVID-19 cases are in the workplace
  • Limit travel
  • Minimize risks when planning meetings and gatherings 

While the CDC has remained silent on guidance for workplace drug testing during the pandemic, other organizations, such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), have provided drug testing guidance that is applicable in workplace settings. Concerning drug testing specimens, ASAM stated:

“Any alternative testing protocol should minimize contact…and minimize the strain on local laboratory services. According to the CDC, viable and infectious COVID-19 can be found in both urine and stool samples of infected individuals. Precautions should be appropriately taken when working with these body fluids. In addition, as it is known to be spread through respiratory droplets, care should be taken when working with saliva specimens as well. At this time, the CDC provides no guidance on routinely pre-testing patients for the COVID-19 virus who are giving a saliva sample.”

Following up this statement, ASAM addressed drug testing from home, “Treatment providers should explore options for drug testing at a distance such as using oral fluid-based tests and/or home breathalyzer tests monitored via telehealth.”

Some employers are citing concerns about sending employees/applicants to testing sites that are performing both COVID-19 and drug testing, as individuals may be exposed to COVID-19 at such a facility. There have been regular reports of employees and job applicants who have simply refused to visit offsite collection facilities for fear of exposure. Along with these safety concerns comes some employers stating that they don’t want their donors using shared equipment, such as breathalyzers, for drug and/or alcohol testing due to concerns of spreading the virus through surface contact.

It’s not just safety concerns that are facing down the drug testing industry. In a recent survey, 20 percent of employers indicated that they have had trouble arranging collection services through offsite collection sites since the start of the pandemic. In the same survey, 24 percent of employers indicated that they had concerns about breath alcohol testing because of the pandemic.

Experts are citing stories from the field in which employers are having issues referring employees/applicants to occupational health facilities for testing due to collection sites now being used for COVID-19 testing. Additionally, some collection sites have shut, at least temporarily, while others have reduced their hours of operation. Add together these concerns, difficulties and counsel from industry experts, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to perform traditional drug testing on employees and applicants.

Drug Testing in the COVID-19 Era

The pandemic has urged many employers to rethink traditional testing methods in favor of those that meet with safe practice guidelines. The inherent ease of a typical oral fluid collection makes it possible for a collection to take place virtually anywhere, anytime. Because there is no need to use a secured restroom or toilet stall and no shared equipment, an oral fluid collection can take place in an office, outdoors at a remote construction site or virtually anywhere else. Conversely, urine collections require the privacy of a bathroom stall, which creates the risk of exposure to COVID-19 via un-sanitized toilets, toilet handles, sinks, faucet handles, stall doors, doorknobs and any other surface typically touched by people who use a restroom.

Additionally, a typical oral fluid collection is employee-driven, meaning donors physically conduct the collection themselves without the collector ever touching the collection materials and containers. This significantly reduces the possibility of any exposure to COVID-19 via a donor’s saliva because the collector never comes in contact with the donor’s sample. While professional technicians at offsite facilities may be used to collect oral fluid samples, it is optional and depends on the circumstances, such as concerns about the cost of using such services or possible exposure to COVID-19.

Return-to-Work Drug Testing

The old saying goes: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Maybe in drug testing terminology, a more appropriate way to say this would be: “Drug testing done right helps employers avoid a whole lot of problems down the road.”

For employers that are federally regulated, it is important to remember that it is essential to meet required random rates, regardless of the current pandemic. Although work has slowed in many industries, employers should continue testing throughout the year rather than backloading all tests in the fourth quarter.

Across the world, countries are experiencing second waves of COVID-19, meaning renewed closures and stricter protocols. As employers face the inevitable second wave, it is essential for them to continue drug testing employees while ensuring safe practices so as to reduce exposure risks. Continued drug testing is essential for ensuring safety in the workplace, and employers can choose testing methods, such as oral fluid drug testing, that minimize risk.

What You Should Be Doing Now

No one can predict when the pandemic will be completely under control, but the day will surely come. In the meantime, there are important things employers can do to be prepared for the new “normal,” whatever it may look like. For instance:

  • Review your states guidelines for reopening. Every state has issued its own unique set of instructions to help employers prepare for a post-pandemic workplace. Study all applicable guidelines and ensure your workplace COVID testing policy and employee health protocols align with those state requirements.
  • Review and update your drug testing policy, including applicable state laws, marijuana laws and workers’ and unemployment compensation laws.
  • Get caught up with all Department of Transportation (DOT) required supervisor training or refresher training utilizing online, easy-to-use courses. Also, provide DOT-required education for all covered employees.
  • Provide non-DOT supervisor training and employee education as well.
  • Enhance and expand your drug testing program by adding alternative testing methods to your existing urine drug testing program that allow self-collection and social distancing. This includes lab-based oral fluid testing and saliva alcohol screening.
  • Consider alternative collection methods such as on-site and telehealth video-observed sample collections.

Heading into this second wave of COVID-19, employers should shore up practices to ensure that they already have safe processes in place. Look into telehealth collections, using apps such as PROOF or Zoom, and talk to your collection sites and providers about potential alternative specimens that reduce the risk of exposure.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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