In April 2020, the Smithfield meat-packing plant in South Dakota made the news because hundreds of its workers became infected. Nearly half of all cases in South Dakota were workers at the Smithfield plant who contracted the virus at work.
Tragically, some of the Smithfield workers died after becoming infected. The only way to prevent outbreaks, such as this one, is to provide workers with access to the PPE that they need and ensure that they can remain six feet apart from their colleagues.
These kinds of measures are unfeasible in many places, and in others, they have not yet been implemented. PPE has been in short supply since hospitals have been in desperate need of it to protect front-line healthcare workers. Most people outside of healthcare have been relying on homemade cloth masks to protect them.
But some workplaces have not yet implemented policies that would provide adequate protection for employees. For example, the Smithfield plant did not provide proper cleaning and sanitation and did not enable employees to distance themselves socially. Amazon warehouses and many other workplaces have faced similar criticisms.
Workers who cannot safely return to work, desperate as they may be to get back to their jobs, stand a high risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease. If one person is infected, then that one person could infect many other people. Remember that the virus is airborne – it could potentially travel through the building’s ventilation.
Employers have a legal obligation to implement adequate safety protocols to protect workers, but if these protocols are not effective in protecting workers in the current crisis, then returning to work could be deadly.
Right now, there is no government-level standard for precisely what workplaces need to do to reopen safely. Some states are requiring that businesses submit workplace-reopening plans, which detail the measures that employers are taking to protect workers and customers.
However, other states are not. And for economies to reopen, people have to have the ability to return to work safely. Requiring workers and customers to wear masks and allowing for social distancing are the two most important things that businesses can do.
For workers to return to their jobs, many need access to reliable childcare. And in many places, that will not be an option for months, if not years. Furthermore, everyone will need assurances that they can return to their jobs safely.
Without providing adequate safety precautions, there will almost certainly be a second wave as soon as economies reopen. The catastrophe that hit New York City will happen in cities all over the country as hospitals become overcrowded.
Providing PPE and requiring people to socially distance themselves have effectively contained the spread of the virus. However, Gates thinks that there is one thing that is even more important: testing people.
For example, South Korea contained its outbreak very quickly by implementing a drastic testing regimen that enabled public health officials to trace every epidemic source. They were then able to isolate people who were asymptomatic before they infected other people. As a result, South Korea has had very few fatalities.
But in the United States, testing has become a political weapon people have been throwing at each other. And to make matters worse, the early tests that the CDC approved gave many false negatives. Many people who had the virus and took a test were told that they were fine.
Since May, states have been on their own about testing. Some have implemented rigorous testing programs by providing free tests for people at clinics throughout the states. These states have been more effective at containing the spread. But other areas have done little to test their residents.
How well a state has fared so far in the current crisis depends on how quickly it shut down its economy and its comprehensive testing program. Some states shut down their economies very rapidly and have tested a high proportion of their populations.
Other states have not. Some states never even implemented a full shutdown, and the virus spread quietly among people who were asymptomatic before hospitals became full of people on ventilators. For children to be able to return to school and workers to return to their jobs, rigorous testing needs to be in place.
A test can identify if the person being tested is infected, but this level of testing is not sufficient in a public health emergency such as the current one. Someone who took a test that came back negative could become infected 10 minutes later.
The robust testing that needs to be in place is what South Korea had in its early days of prevention: being able to trace outbreaks to the source. It means that public health workers need to be able to identify all of the people that a positive person came into contact with and test them. This plan will require enormous resources and personnel, and the US has not deployed that at a systemic level.
6. Gates Believes Reopening Needs To Happen In Stages
To prevent a catastrophic second wave, the reopening that happens needs to be gradual, in stages. That means that states need to implement plans that require businesses to submit reopening plans to ensure workplaces are safe before reopening. Gates revealed his plan that involves many aspects including these stages.
Small gatherings, rather than unlimited gatherings of people on beaches or in shopping malls, should be allowed once the state has flattened the curve. Only as the states’ plans to reopen a new wave of businesses and allow for more interaction between people have shown not to create a new wave should more reopenings happen.
As economies reopen, the reality is that there will be new outbreaks. And again, this is why testing is so essential: tracing these new outbreaks to the source so that they can become contained before the outbreak becomes uncontrollable.
Being prepared to deal with new outbreaks also means that hospitals are supplied with enough PPE and ventilators to prevent another near-collapse, such as what happened in New York in March and April. Moreover, new outbreaks mean that economies may have to close again, at least temporarily.
The alternative to gradual reopenings that occur only with robust testing that can trace outbreaks to the source is a new wave of infections that will overwhelm and possibly collapse the healthcare system.
The goal of reopening needs to be to preserve human life by protecting people – especially those who are most vulnerable – from the possibility of infection. While the economic fallout is certainly disastrous, the human toll of a massive loss of life will be immense.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been leading the way in developing a vaccine that could immunize the world to the virus that has paralyzed it. Institutions all over the world – including universities, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies – have been collaborating. Gates is spearheading that effort.
Continuing the research and development plans that are working towards a vaccine should be a priority for governments. However, relying on a vaccine to come in the future is not an adequate plan for reopening economies, as there is no guarantee of a vaccine or when it will be available.
The shortest timeframe that has been proposed for a vaccine is 12 to 18 months. That means that one will not be available until the summer of 2021, so shutdowns may continue well into next year. It is a reality that we all need to be prepared to deal with immediately.
Many public health experts are concerned that a vaccine may not come for years, or may not come at all. If this is the case and it is here with us to stay, then we need to be prepared for our lives to change dramatically, permanently.
While waiting for a vaccine, the most important thing that states can do is implement rigorous testing programs that will trace infections to the source to contain outbreaks. Employees will need to be tested before they can come back to work.
When those employees return to work, they will need both childcare and the assurance that they can work safely. So states all across the country have a long way to go before their economies can safely reopen without risking another wave of infections, which could be much more deadly than the first one.