Reopening the economy will depend on companies diagnosing coronavirus cases in the workplace.
The intense measures and restrictions to combat Covid-19 are a necessary hardship to prevent a wider and more devastating epidemic. But even after the epidemic subsides, the virus will remain a threat until there is an effective vaccine. America needs a plan to reduce that threat, and business leaders can play a big part.
As employees return to work, perhaps as early as May, employers can offer screening at their place of business. Rapid diagnosis and containment will be a critical part of limiting spread. Bringing these activities into the workplace would make them more widespread and routine, and can be done in conjunction with efforts to expand testing throughout the health-care system.
People who have signs of respiratory illness should see a doctor. But many Covid-19 patients have mild or no symptoms. Without prompt testing to differentiate mild colds from the novel coronavirus, people could spread the virus unknowingly. Portable and relatively inexpensive testing platforms can be brought to businesses in mobile vans or deployed on-site and administered by professionals. Testing companies are ramping up supply, and businesses can start placing orders now.
This should be part of a broader employer effort to fight respiratory illnesses in the workplace. Employers have long offered flu vaccines and passed out hand sanitizer in the winter. This coronavirus should be treated similarly, with employers invested in protecting workers. Until there is a vaccine, preventing Covid-19 outbreaks will depend mostly on testing, isolation and tracing the contacts of people who test positive. Workplace testing would catch the disease where it spreads—especially for employees who can’t work remotely and risk infection by coming in contact with many others during the day, such as store clerks.
Systems on the market are well suited to this mission. The GeneXpert by Cepheid is a highly sensitive machine that uses a chemical process called polymerase chain reaction to test for infection by detecting the viral RNA. This machine doesn’t require complicated sample prep or even a perfect swab of the nose and throat. It can use a relatively small sample of upper-airway secretions to discriminate a positive test from a negative one precisely. Cepheid said it is expanding its production of test kits and the machines that run them. Other testing systems in development may have the same potential.
For businesses that can’t easily bring testing to the work site, there are other options. They can work with companies developing home collection tests, which would help make this technology available sooner, or could contract with pharmacies running screening programs. States could sponsor collaborative testing programs and allow small businesses to join. Government could financially support these efforts for higher-risk businesses that may not have capital available to expand testing, such as grocery stores.
Many testing platforms can also distinguish Covid-19 from the flu, which can help employers keep their workplace healthy. If testing for respiratory illnesses becomes a standard business practice, medical companies will respond with more innovation in creating efficient and accurate testing platforms. Companies will invest in developing products that are simple to use, such as swab sticks that screen for viruses and give an immediate, readable result to the user. Greater demand from employers will increase supply of these screening systems.
Business leaders can help in other ways. When someone is diagnosed with Covid-19 and can be safely managed at home, the prudent course is to allow the patient to self-isolate for the duration of the illness. Workplace testing programs should also work with the local health department to ensure contact tracing. But these employees need to be compensated for missed work, or many will be reluctant to forfeit pay for a mild disease. Business leaders should expand paid sick leave to all employees for the duration of a Covid-19 illness. Nobody should have to fear losing income for doing the right thing of staying at home to reduce the spread.
As the epidemic is brought under control, and the country begins to contemplate reopening, employers can help Americans return to work—safely.