Is Drug & Alcohol Testing Safe in a Pandemic?

Since the first COVID-19 lockdown of March 2020, drug and alcohol testing has fallen sharply across the UK. It’s a worrying trend, as it slows down cases in the Family Courts – placing more children at risk, at a time when domestic abuse has risen by 9%.

Of course, the slowdown is understandable. Aside from a stalling justice system that’s bringing fewer cases to court, there’s the small matter of safety:

Can a sample collector take hair, blood or a mouth swab without putting themselves or the donor at risk?

At the start of lockdown, this question brought labs and testing agencies to a standstill. Regulations were vague, PPE was scarce, and liability for passing infection was very much a grey area. So a simple procedure became an insurmountable problem, leading to a slump in appointments and a spike in no-shows.

So what’s an industry to do?

Obviously, we can’t control the virus or stem the tide of new variants after vaccination. So how do we address safety concerns and get the court system back on its feet?

Here’s a breakdown of the steps we took, in line with advice from the UK government and World Health Organisation.

The lockdown changed everything

With a national shortage of PPE, we had to close the office, including our drop-in testing centre. And unable to visit clients at home or in solicitors’ offices, our field-based sample collectors were sidelined too. That day was the 20th March 2020 .

Thankfully, we were ahead of the curve with procurement, and within 8 weeks we took delivery of the appropriate masks, gowns, gloves and IR temperature guns. Finally, we could get back to testing clients at home.

However, PPE was only one part of the challenge. Our whole collections procedure had to be revised.

It started with training. Our medical staff were able to brief collectors on NHS guidelines for safe practices, like “donning and doffing” of PPE. Then they developed new protocols, which we still follow at every appointment:

  • Collectors arrive at the client’s home dressed in disposable PPE.
  • They section off – and sanitise – a working area with space for social distancing.
  • The client is given their own PPE to wear.
  • Collector and client face away from each other as the sample is taken.
  • On completion, the working area is cleaned, with PPE removed in safe disposal bags.

With these measures cemented, we were able to resume collections on 20th May, and soon returned to near pre-pandemic levels.

It’s worth saying, some of the testing labs were back out in the field before us. We don’t know what safety measures they took – all we can say is, we waited until we could take samples without putting clients or collectors at risk.

Meanwhile, our back office got by without disruption. We were already set up for remote working, with a dedicated secure server and laptops pre-configured with all essential software. We were using phone handsets that plug remotely into the office system, so staff can be reached on site or at home via the same direct line. We were dealing with courts and solicitors via cloud-based applications. So it was easy to switch to a new regime that would keep things running smoothly – and keep our whole team safe.

Next – during the closure, changes were made to the office layout. So when essential staff returned on 20th May, we were equipped for social distancing – not just for seating, but also for movement around the office.

These changes included a new secure entry process. Inward access is now restricted to a single door, where staff and visitors are temperature-checked and asked to declare – in writing – any circumstances that may have exposed them to the COVID virus.

This allowed us to reopen the testing centre, with the same safety procedures we observe in clients’ homes. And we’re pleased to say, it’s all been highly effective. Our staff have stayed infection-free, and we have no reports of clients contracting the virus after collection, whether here on-site or in their homes.

Today, we’re gradually getting back to normal. As a rule, the remaining home-based staff can return once they’ve received both parts of their vaccination. However some – like our marketing team – will continue to work remotely, because we’ve found they can be every bit as effective at home.

So returning to the question – is drug and alcohol testing safe in a pandemic?

With the right equipment, training and procedures, yes. If new variants strike and lockdown comes again, we can say for sure that we’ll be ready for the upheaval.

If you’re choosing a testing partner for your next custody case, it’s worth exploring their safety measures to make sure they’re just as stringent. Or talk to us, and we’ll take care of everything from collection to court reports.

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