While most Americans are staying grounded this summer, air travel remains essential, and airports have been adapting to remain operational while keeping passengers — and employees — safe. Now, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has become the first airport in the country to launch a COVID-19 rapid testing program for its employees. The program will offer rapid testing for all SFO employees both on-site and nearby.
“Since March, airports around the world have been transforming to respond to this new reality, and the new normal, and a lot of it involves more what passengers would go through,” SFO Public Information Officer Doug Yakel told SF Weekly. “But every phase of this really affects employees as well. And so our approach has always been not only to protect our passengers, but even before you can do that successfully, you’ve got to protect your employees and have good processes in place.”
The program launched quietly in late July with the introduction of rapid testing for flight crews. The on-site testing facility is currently returning results in under an hour, according to an Aug. 24 press release. That turnaround time is invaluable for flight crew members crossing state or country borders on strict schedules.
“Countries are requiring a negative test result within 72 hours of arrival in order to be granted entry,” Yakel said. “And for a lot of these flight crews that are traveling long distances, they can’t immediately turn around and fly back. They’ve got to stay at that destination for crew rest purposes for a period of time. So this really enables not only what’s happening at our airport, but air transport to a variety of locations.”
Now, as the airport publicly announces the program’s broader launch, testing will be made available to all employees, including not just airline staff but also on-site retail and restaurant employees — except for those employed by the city and county of San Francisco, like Yakel, who have separate testing infrastructure available to them. Testing resources and clinical guidance are provided by GoHealth, an urgent care company which has partnered with Dignity Health St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco.
For airport employees who are either traveling or in contact with travellers, the stakes of coming to work sick are especially high. GoHealth Urgent Care CEO Todd Latz told SF Weekly that rapid testing represents a “totally different paradigm” than lab-based testing, and will make it much easier to, for example, stop an asymptomatic carrier from getting on a plane.
“The ability to catch that almost instantaneously, within 15 minutes, and to have that immediate behavioral change, is really a huge difference versus sending it off to a lab and waiting a number of days until you get that test back,” Latz said.
Rapid tests that return results at the point of care can be less accurate than lab-based tests, but Latz said he was very confident in the efficacy of the molecular-based test the company is using, which GoHealth has relied upon to test for illnesses like the flu and strep in the past. GoHealth also ran internal tests comparing the rapid results to lab-based results.
“No test is perfect,” Latz said. “But we’ve had really, really strong results with what we’ve been doing. And our team’s been trained and has been doing this for years.”
SFO employed around 44,000 people pre-pandemic, according to Yakel. Now, with an estimated 75 percent of employees laid off or furloughed, the airport employs closer to 11,000 people. The introduction of rapid testing is intended to not only make the job safer for essential employees currently at work, but also pave the way for more to return.
“Right now we’re only seeing about 10 percent of the passenger volume that we should normally be seeing at this time of year,” Yakel said. “But we’re thinking about what we need to do as an airport to be ready for increasing amounts of activity, increasing employees coming back to work, and a rapid way of providing test information is obviously one of those pillars that we needed to satisfy in order to start charting that course forward.”
Yakel emphasized the importance of the partnership with GoHealth, noting that “airports are not experts on healthcare. They’re experts on airports.” GoHealth has partnered with hundreds of employers, according to Latz, from essential workplaces like power plants trying to remain safely operational to office-based businesses trying to safely reopen. These partnerships, and the company’s recent partnership with SFO, has allowed GoHealth to develop replicable models and strategies that can be applied to other businesses and other airports, Latz said.