UnitedHealth Group develops calculator that allows schools, businesses to simulate COVID testing programs

The outside of UnitedHealth Group's headquarters
UnitedHealth Group researchers have developed a calculator to simulate COVID-19 testing scenarios. (UnitedHealth Group)

As schools and businesses weigh their options for tracking COVID-19 cases, UnitedHealth Group's researchers have developed an online calculator tool these organizations can use to game out potential testing programs.

The free tool allows users to simulate the financial cost as well as the likely number of false positives for several different testing options and frequencies.

For example, if a school in a low-spread area wants to model the cost associated with administering weekly polymerase chain reaction tests, they can input that information to see an estimated per person expense as well as the likely number of infections in a 100-day window.

Ethan Berke, M.D., senior vice president and chief public health officer at UnitedHealth Group, told Fierce Healthcare that the healthcare giant was getting questions from schools and other organizations about when and where to conduct tests, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution to those questions.

RELATED: CVS launching platform to help employers, universities safely reopen amid COVID-19

The calculator aims to make those decisions a bit easier as these organizations find the testing model that works best for them, he said.

"It’s not as simple as just picking the brand or even the type of technology, but you really need to have a strategy," Berke said.

Alongside development of the tool, UnitedHealth Group's team partnered with a school in Washington, D.C., to test the impact of pooled testing, in which students and adults who live near each other were grouped into small pods.

In this model, all eight pod members are tested with the same test, and, if they were positive for COVID-19, the entire pod was individually tested and quarantined. The program allowed the school to cut down on the volume of tests that were conducted while still tracking and managing spread within the population.

RELATED: One year of COVID: As scientific innovation went into overdrive, here's what happened at UnitedHealth Group

The results of the pilot were published in the journal PLOS One. The team found that the pooling approach cut down on the number of students who were moved into remote learning.

Berke said the program was also simple enough that school officials could manage it themselves, leading to greater independence as they kept their facilities open.

"It’s a highly efficient way to test when we’re expecting a lot of negatives overall," he said.

While the world is nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Berke said it's not too late for schools and other organizations to be finding ways to mitigate and track the spread of the virus. These efforts are especially imperative, he said, as there's a significant drive this school year to maintain in-person learning as much as possible.

While the school year has opened, there is still the joint COVID-19 and flu season to contend with, for example, he said.

"I think that it’s probably not too late to think about the role of any of these mitigation strategies," Berke said. "I think being prepared with these types of tools is going to be necessary."