It takes a lot of COVID-19 tests to keep a movie studio open

The regime of testing will cost more than $1.5 million a month once cameras are rolling and several thousand workers are on set

As film and TV sets reopen at Pinewood Atlanta Studios, home to big-screen juggernauts like “Avengers: Endgame,” the biggest job is keeping the coronavirus off the Georgia studio’s lot.

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The several hundred producers, set designers, painters and carpenters working to get productions ready undergo tests for Covid-19 weekly, and sometimes more often. An app tracks workers’ symptoms between tests, and a badge system prevents anyone without a negative test result from opening doors on the lot.

The regime of testing will cost more than $1.5 million a month once cameras are rolling and several thousand workers are on set, said the studio’s chief executive, Frank Patterson, noting that is what is needed to stay in business.

Pinewood Atlanta is trying to solve a riddle facing a host of businesses, schools and universities headed into this fall: How much Covid-19 testing is needed to ensure people can stay safe and keep organizations functioning amid a pandemic. At many companies, tests for active infections or antibodies are becoming a condition of returning to the workplace, along with symptom checks and stepped-up cleaning practices, medical consultants say.

Mr. Patterson steeped himself in research on testing, viral transmission and air quality when the pandemic halted film shoots in mid-March. With streaming services and Hollywood studios relying on him to produce new content, he aimed to restart his company’s shooting as soon as possible and become what he calls “one of the most secure and safest studios in the world.”

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That security doesn’t come cheap. These days, around 200 workers each day get a nasal-swab Covid-19 test, costing Pinewood Atlanta about $200 each. When cameras are rolling later this year, 3,000 to 6,000 workers will be on set daily, compounding costs.

“We have to pay a premium just to get back to work. It’s painful, but it’s not stopping anyone,” Mr. Patterson said.

Pinewood Atlanta has been involved in some of the world’s highest-grossing franchises, such as “Avengers: Engame” and “Black Panther,” as well as content for streaming services. The production company believes testing expenses will eventually qualify for the state’s film-production tax credits. A spokeswoman for Georgia’s revenue department said it plans to put out guidance on allowed expenses soon.

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Employers who want results quickly must hunt for labs that can guarantee speedy results and priority treatment. Right now, testing in the U.S. involves a patchwork of public, private and academic laboratories that can offer their own testing services or partner with drugstores, doctors and other groups. That decentralized system has recently been plagued by supply-chain strains and a surge in demand that has led to delays in results for many individuals.

“We just don’t have a real functioning market,” where demand for testing can easily find lab capacity in the U.S., said Sean Murray, president of Eurofins’s workplace Covid-19 testing program.

To run its tests, Pinewood Atlanta hired health-testing and software-company BioIQ Inc., which relies on a network of labs. The company offers results in 24 to 48 hours, and Mr. Patterson says his studio is also willing to courier or rapidly ship tests to labs for faster processing.

“The tighter your feedback loop the more quickly you can learn and adapt,” BioIQ Chief Executive Justin Bellante said of the need for quick turnaround times in results. Weekslong waits for many people tested in the U.S. have slowed contact-tracing and containment efforts.

Workers at Pinewood Atlanta report for testing days before they are scheduled to be on the lot to allow time for results to come in. A nurse performs a nasal swab for their first test; if that first test comes back negative, subsequent tests are conducted via saliva samples.

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All workers on Pinewood productions have to answer health questions via an app on their phones. A completed questionnaire and a negative Covid-19 result get an all-clear code on the app, which workers present at a checkpoint at the studio. To open doors on the campus, workers must scan a badge; the badges only work if the wearer has received a negative test result.

Security guards at the checkpoint on the lot issue cleared workers a different color wristband each day. On-site Covid compliance officers, as well as fellow workers, keep watch to ensure everyone has the same color wristband.

The frequency of testing for workers at the studio is determined by factors such as the level of person-to-person interaction in their jobs. The highest-risk workers are tested three times a week, and Mr. Patterson said some actors prefer daily testing.

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Figuring out testing led to some friction along the way, Mr. Patterson said, but partner studios and unions have reached a point where some preproduction work has resumed. The film industry as a whole hasn’t yet adopted formal testing rules and Pinewood Atlanta will adjust its still-evolving protocols as standards are established.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that testing workers without virus symptoms may be useful in areas with significant community spread, though employers should consider factors such as the availability of tests and rate of positive results in previous employee tests.

Siemens Healthineers AG ’s world-wide testing program for its 50,000 workers will rely on consistent rules for all employees and includes regular testing for active infections and viral antibodies.

Workers’ testing will depend on their location, the state of infection in the area, how much they travel and their work setting, said Deepak Nath, the company’s president of laboratory diagnostics. Those who report to a corporate facility or travel in areas where the virus isn’t contained will be required to get weekly tests and monthly antibody tests, which Siemens Healthineers produces.

Public-health officials have given mixed reviews to antibody tests, which require a blood draw to detect the presence of virus-fighting cells. They warn that having had Covid-19 isn’t a guarantee against future infections. Yet medical advisers who work with employers say the tests can give companies a sense of the prevalence of the virus among their workforces.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has partnered with the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard to test workers in the Los Angeles area and in Washington state for Covid-19 antibodies, said people familiar with the matter. SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Dr. Nath said he didn’t expect needing such elaborate testing to keep workplaces open back in March, but the continued global infections make it necessary, he said. The company is self-insured, meaning it pays for all of its employee health-care costs. It declined to say how much testing will likely cost.

“We truly haven’t used cost as a filter through which to say whether we test or don’t test,” Dr. Nath said.

Grocery-chain Kroger Co. has begun shipping at-home tests to workers that cost about $60 to process. Microsoft Corp. offers on-site testing to employees and their families if they want it, a spokesman said.

While workplace testing is a financial strain for businesses now, costs could fall as pooled-testing methods become available, Mr. Murray of Eurofins said.

“It really is about money. If it were free, I think there’d be testing all over the place,” he said.

Employers are trying other tactics alongside testing such as new air-quality and circulation measures and additional cleaning. At Pinewood Atlanta, productions are likely to employ fewer extras, and intimate moments between actors will be simulated with visual effects, Mr. Patterson said.

“Will it actually be actors exchanging spit? Unlikely,” he said. “If we can do characters traveling universes and conquering worlds [with effects], we can certainly have two lovers kissing.”

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