The issue of testing has been a major part of the larger conversation about COVID since the president declared a State of Emergency in March.
The White House issued a statement on July 31 that at that time the U.S. had conducted 59 million COVID-19 tests and the federal government was providing testing supplies to states by distributing more than 44 million swabs and 36 million tubes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that in one month of July an average of 810,000 tests were being issued per day.
These results were announced as part of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, intended to deliver 300 million doses of a safe COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021. At that time the FDA authorized 193 types of COVID-19 tests under emergency authority, gave States great leeway to experiment with different methods and identified tests by Abbott, Cepheid, BD Veritor and Quidel as greatly increasing volume and speed of testing.
While Vice President Mike Pence admitted in March that the U.S. was initially unable to meet its goals of delivering sufficient COVID-19 tests, the advances referenced by the White House in July have progressed and now offer great promise to the live business.
By October Abbott projects it will be manufacturing 50 million nasal-swab BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card rapid antigen tests at the cost of $5 each, promising the delivery of PPA 97% / NPA 100% accurate results within 15 minutes. This test is paired with a mobile app that is tied to a negative test result, so once someone has passed their COVID test, the app will clear them for entry into a building.
“We intentionally designed the BinaxNOW test and NAVICA app so we could offer a comprehensive testing solution to help Americans feel more confident about their health and lives,” Robert B. Ford, president and CEO of Abbott said in a statement. “BinaxNOW and the NAVICA app give us an affordable, easy-to-use and scalable test, and a digital health tool to help us have a bit more normalcy in our daily lives.”
Cepheid similarly has developed an Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2 automated molecular test; BD Veritor has a chromatographic immunoassay nasal swab test with results in 15 minutes with 1 button functionality; and Quidel’s Sofia SARS Antigen Fluorescent Immunoassay test also promises PPA 97 percent accurate results within 15 minutes of a nasal swab. Additional tests from AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer are expected in October.And the U.S. isn’t the only country looking to utilize improved testing technology. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also mentioned in a Sept. 9 speech that his government is working on a mass testing solution to help live venues reopen at capacity.
Dr. Andrew Bazos, founder of CrowdRx, addressed in May that testing was constantly improving and would be a key part of venues safely reopening. He said, at the time, that instant saliva tests would solve a lot of the challenges venues would face with implementing standardized tests.
While some might balk at tests’ claims of 97% accuracy, Bazos said testing is a key element of reducing risk of COVID transmission at events.
“Ultimately there’s always going to be an incremental risk in going to an event,” Bazos said. “We are there to make that as low as possible and with more testing we can get that risk lower and lower and ultimately eliminate it as much as possible. There’s always a risk, but our goal is to minimize it as much as possible.”
Bazos recently told Pollstar that all of the current production for rapid-result tests has been purchased by government agencies, but as the kits become available to the private sector, CrowdRx will implement them in its protocols to allow for the return of spectator events.
Brett Herman and Timothy Monkiewicz, founders of the 8,000-cap Elements Music & Art Festival, have made COVID-testing a central part of their business in recent months, having already organized an In My Elements retreat with electronic music, camping, yoga and meditation programming and art installations for 225 attendees July 10-12, with a second on the horizon Sept. 25-28.
The outdoor event in the wilderness of Northeastern Pennsylvania has made its two-tier COVID testing mandatory for all attendees: all ticketholders will be the week of the event, and again upon arrival on-site.
The first In My Elements retreat went off successfully with zero reported cases of COVID-19 and the organizers said two asymptomatic cases were caught thanks to advance testing.
“Fortunately, the rapid tests have significantly improved over the last month,” Elements’ Monkiewicz told Pollstar. “As far as attendee compliance, probably 65 percent of people did all of the testing without questing, submitted all of their testing right on time. Another 25-30 percent needed their hand held, we sent some emails back and forth. And then a couple arrived late, so we had to leave the [on-site testing station] open late.
“There was definitely a learning curve and we realized we had to beef up on customer service, especially on the days of the tests. We had to work that out and really have a system now.”
On-site at In My Elements the attendees still observe a plethora of precautions: mask wearing is required; maintenance of 6-feet-distances is required when possible; frequent sanitizing is being encouraged throughout the grounds; and regulations are enforced not by on-site security but through an ambassador program, by fans who volunteer to remind people to wear their mask, to keep their distance and to regularly sanitize.
Monkiewicz and Herman are already consulting with other events in different states for the coming months and said it’s important to be in touch with local authorities as regulations for large gatherings frequently change.
They said in many states it is possible that up to 1,000 people may soon be allowed at a gathering, and when the authorities do provide that green light, event organizers will need to be ready to operate in the safest way possible.
“Designing this event has taught us that things can change on a day-to-day or a week-to-week basis, and the event has to be able to pivot quickly if there is a sudden change in government regulation and now that is going to be expected of guests as well. We have to be flexible and we ask the same of our venues, vendors and artists.”
Despite the importance of making use of testing, even with the recent advances in testing technology, Herman said the added costs of their two-tier system are “substantial.”
“We didn’t expect to make money on the first one, we were just hoping to break even. We ended up taking a hit but we viewed it as an investment for the future of our events, including larger festivals and all events. It was a financial risk we were willing to take. At the time testing was not covered by insurance, so the overall ticket cost had to be much higher. Now with insurance being covered more widely across the state, we’re hoping the cost of a weekend gathering like this can continue to go down,” Herman said. “If regular testing was required weekly: to go to a concert, to go to a weekly retreat, perhaps we can encourage people to get tested en masse.
“What would the world look like if every-one was getting tested and we were able to catch these asymptomatic cases? I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to encourage people to get tested as frequently as possible so we can try to accelerate snuffing this disease out and reopening.
“It’s already been six months. How long do we passively wait to resume business as usual? A year? Two years? I don’t see anybody taking concrete steps to end this, governments included. Particularly in the live event industry, we feel like we will be the very last, if any, to receive any sort of aid. Most businesses will go bankrupt or collapse in next few months if there is not some sort of relief. We might be in capacity restriction for the foreseeable future, which is why we decided to design a system that can safely put on limited-size events.
“As a live event producer, I don’t accept ‘Sit around and wait for a vaccine’ as a solution for my business. As far as figuring out the metrics for when things are safe, I think our experience can provide insight on how live events can begin to resume safely.”