Business Planning for Reopening – Tips from an Epidemiologist

Categories: Clinical Insights, For Employers, General

This blog was originally published on Fast Company.

 

We are starting to hear a lot of talk about reopening the economy in the upcoming weeks or months. The timing of re-opening will likely be location-dependent, and in some cases may be 2-3 months away. Regardless of timing, it’s a good idea for businesses to start planning now for what reopening might look like, in a way that keeps both employees and customers safe. As we’ve already learned in this pandemic, it never hurts to plan ahead.

As part of this planning, it’s important to remember that pandemics typically come in waves and that we are likely to see a resurgence at some point. This means we need to monitor illness vigilantly, and if we see a rise in cases, we may need to return to a state of more stringent physical distancing. Therefore, businesses need to have plans in place to:

  • monitor employee illness and absenteeism.
  • rapidly identify and isolate ill employees.
  • set triggers or thresholds for when a return to more stringent physical distancing, including office closure, needs to occur.

Community considerations/Situational awareness:

The timing of reopening will likely depend on the community where your office is located. First and foremost, a community really should not reopen unless we are seeing, not just a flattening of the curve, but a downward trend in the number of cases. In addition, to prevent a large resurgence in illness and death, a community ideally needs to be able to test, track, and terminate transmission rapidly, prior to an economic reopening. 

  • Test: Ideally, the community would have the capability to rapidly test a large percentage of the population to minimize exposure risks once we return. For example, a test would help us determine who we might first send back to work, such as those who are immune or recovered from the virus (and who do not fall into a high-risk category). In addition, the community would need to be able to test quickly to identify any new cases that emerge. So the availability and accessibility of testing in a given location will be a key consideration in the timing of reopening.
  • Track: The community would also hopefully have an enhanced ability to identify and track people who developed illness, and trace their contacts. This is traditionally a function conducted by local and state health departments, but we are starting to see private sector apps and other mechanisms to assist with this function. This must of course be balanced with the appropriate privacy considerations.
  • Terminate transmission: Finally, there would need to be the ability to rapidly disrupt transmission, by making sure that those newly infected with the virus, and their contacts, are kept away from others, so we don’t see further rapid spread. This will require strong public health guidelines and communication channels between local/state health departments and employers, as well as the ability to re-introduce more stringent physical distancing policies if needed. 

Situational awareness will be key for businesses: Businesses should incorporate mechanisms into their planning to keep abreast of what is happening in communities where their offices are located. Consider designating a person at each location to monitor the local news, area health department, healthcare, and laboratory websites, and pertinent social media channels to keep you updated on the local situation.

General considerations for employers to think through prior to reopening:

  • Occupation types: What type of work do your employees do? Are they essential workers? Are they in close proximity to others due to the nature of their work? Do they interact with the public?
  • Demographics: Is your employee population largely in high-risk categories? (Do they have a history of underlying conditions or are a large percentage 65+ in age?)
  • Location: What states/counties are employees located in? Are those locations seeing high rates of illness, a flattening, or a downward trend? Are the hospitals/healthcare systems in those areas overwhelmed? Do those locations have stay-at-home laws or other employer-related policies in place that need to be followed? What are the transportation options in those locations – tightly packed public transportation or more personal vehicles? Is childcare available again in those communities?
  • Lab testing: What is the availability of lab testing where employees are located? Is the testing available looking for immunity to the virus or for active disease? How good are the tests being offered? Do you as an employer have the capability of offering testing to your employees or have the means to get them access to testing?
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Infection Control: Do you as an employer have access to cloth masks, gloves, and other PPE for employees? Are you able to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet among your workers? Are you able to make hand sanitizer or hand washing stations available? Are you able to increase environmental cleaning if guidelines mandate higher cleaning frequency? Can you potentially put engineering controls in place, like installing clear plastic sneeze guards, markers indicating 6 feet of distance, touchless doors and fixtures or HVAC upgrades? 
  • Symptom monitoring: If you reopen, do you have a mechanism to detect employees who might fall ill and isolate them quickly? Will you be using symptom trackers or thermometers or other mechanisms to quickly identify new cases, and do you have a plan in place to pull them out from the workforce? Do you have procedures in place to identify contacts of new cases, and quarantine them if necessary? Do you have thresholds in place (e.g. a certain number of new cases or a certain amount of absenteeism) that might trigger you to close that office again, or reduce the numbers of staff physically working there?
  • Training: Have you made training available for employees on basic infection control practices (e.g. how to wear a cloth covering, wash hands effectively, physically distance, etc)? Are you offering trainings for managers on symptom monitoring, what to do when an employee has symptoms and how to notify close contacts in the workplace? 
  • Legal: Are you following and tracking the latest guidelines from the EEOC, OSHA, CDC, and others, as it pertains to pandemic situations?
  • Care for your employees: Do your employees have ready access to care or the ability to get their questions answered related to COVID-19? Have you considered putting virtual options in place, like telemedicine providers or clinician hotlines to augment overstretched healthcare systems in your area? 

Thinking through these considerations, as well as maintaining situational awareness of the communities in which your business operates, will be the key to successfully reopening. In addition, it will be important to stay abreast of changes in the clinical realm, such as the emergence of effective treatment options, which may impact the risks/benefits of reopening.

At Grand Rounds, we are always available to help you think through these issues. We have Virtual Chief Medical Officers to assist you with your pandemic business planning needs, as well as access to infectious disease and occupational health experts at academic institutions around the country.

 

Connect with us to learn what Grand Rounds can do for your team during this time – click here.

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