Health Officials Say Opening Economy Depends on Testing and Following a Framework

Senate also examines employer liability for coronavirus claims

U.S. Senate

The phased-in reopening of the economy will vary by region, and officials need to follow a "framework of how we safely open America again," according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

"There are several checkpoints," he said during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on May 12 on how to safely return to work and to school during the coronavirus pandemic. Fauci and other public health experts testified remotely. 

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Returning to the Workplace

In April, the White House issued Opening Up America Again guidelines for private businesses, which include a phased approach to returning to work. Under the guidelines, the following "gating criteria" should be met before a state or region reopens:

  • Influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like cases of illness must trend downward for 14 days.
  • Documented COVID-19 cases and positive tests must trend downward for 14 days (while not decreasing the overall number of tests).
  • Local hospitals must have the capacity to treat all patients without crisis care, and jurisdictions must have a robust program for testing health care workers.

Fauci said "the consequences could be really serious" if states or cities prematurely open up. "My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that will turn into outbreaks."

Dr. Robert Redfield, director for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said local leaders will require varying degrees of federal support as they make decisions about reopening. "Each location will be different and will face unique circumstances."

Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of food and drugs for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said the FDA is working diligently. "We won't let up until we facilitate the development of products that our nation needs to get back to work."

Chai Feldblum, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., told SHRM Online that the biggest takeaway from the hearing was the importance of testing, contact tracing, treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, for people in society to feel safe. "The same issues apply to employees who want to feel safe coming back to work," she said.

Testing and Vaccine Development

"Staying home indefinitely isn't the solution to this pandemic," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He added that there's not enough money available to help all those hurt by a closed economy.

"All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing, tracking, isolation, treatment and vaccine," he said. "This requires widespread testing."

Sen. Patricia Murray, D-Wash., said leaders need a plan before they start to reopen and before they have a safe and effective vaccine, so they can ensure a vaccine is distributed quickly on a global scale and is available for free to everyone when it is ready.

"We have powerful tools to fight this enemy," Redfield said, such as effective public health interventions that include early case identification, isolation and contact tracing; and mitigation strategies that include social distancing, frequent hand washing and face covering.

"These public health tools have and will continue to slow the spread of COVID-19," he said. "Rapid, extensive and widely available, timely testing is essential for reopening America."

Fauci added that the strategic plan to combat the coronavirus is fourfold:

  • Improve fundamental knowledge of the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
  • Develop new point-of-care diagnostics.
  • Characterize and test therapeutics.
  • Develop safe and effective vaccines.

In January, Fauci said that it would take 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine. At the hearing, he noted that it would be a "bridge too far" for schools to expect a vaccine before students return to class in the fall. "Hopefully our research efforts, together with the other public health efforts, will get us quickly to an end to this terrible ordeal that we are all going through."

Business Immunity Debated

During another Senate committee hearing on May 12, lawmakers heard testimony on whether to hold employers responsible for shielding workers from COVID-19. Some lawmakers support proposed legislation to protect employers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, but others are concerned such protection would lead to employers not taking proper steps to safeguard workers.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges to our nation and the world as people and businesses strive to move forward against an insidious virus that is found everywhere," testified Kevin Smartt, chief executive officer of Kwik Chek Convenience Stores in Spicewood, Texas, who supports business immunity from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

"Unfortunately, despite trying to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of our customers and employees during this pandemic, my companies have targets on their backs because our doors have remained open," he said.

Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C., opposes business immunity.

"Workers are getting sick and dying," she said, adding that some employers were slow to follow CDC guidelines. She also testified that workers of color may be disproportionately affected. "Though all workers on the job now and returning in the next weeks and months are at risk of illness, black and Latinx workers and other workers of color, including immigrants, are more likely to be in frontline jobs," she said.

Congress is currently working on several proposals with varying protections for businesses and workers. 



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Asking Vaccination Status

The Department of Health & Human Services has clarified the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not prohibit an employer from requesting an employee’s vaccination status as part of the terms and conditions of employment.

The Department of Health & Human Services has clarified the HIPAA Privacy Rule does not prohibit an employer from requesting an employee’s vaccination status as part of the terms and conditions of employment.



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