CEO & Executive Director at the Illinois Medical District; Instructor at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health
All 50 states have reopened some or all of their economies since the pandemic sent Americans home in March to work remotely. But the virus is still raging in many states, causing reopening rollbacks even as some businesses have already welcomed workers back to the office. Others are set to reopen in the fall or in early 2021. With such uncertainty, every property owner, real estate manager and business needs to have a foolproof preparedness plan.
At the very least, the pandemic will last for many more months, with potential subsequent outbreaks that may ebb and flow for years. In my view, the administration’s “Opening Up America Again” program that offers suggested guidelines on capacity and allowed services has not been enough. Part of the reason is that our public health system has been decimated by extensive funding cuts and uncoordinated planning, according to a report from the nonprofit Trust for American’s Health.
Given the stops and starts of efforts fueled by policymakers in the past decade, this effort should not be left to politics. We need to have thorough and effective plans in place for emergency preparedness that call on the government and businesses to both do their parts. Each has an important and broad role to play in the process.
Government’s Role: Don’t Cut Back Preparedness
The government has to consider public health and safety comprehensively because infectious diseases have been emerging more quickly than ever before for quite some time. In fact, the World Health Organization first warned of this issue in a 2007 report. Over 40 deadly viruses have been discovered since the 1970s, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now Covid-19. The WHO has attributed this to people living in more densely populated areas, traveling more frequently and far greater distances and coming into more contact with wild animals.
Back in 2007, the WHO also noted the potential for emerging infectious diseases to spread rapidly and cause global outbreaks and pandemics — which is exactly what has happened today. Yet today, we have “never been less prepared for a pandemic,” Council on Foreign Relations former senior fellow Laurie Garrett noted at the start of the pandemic in January. That’s because the U.S. cut funding for all disease security programs and effectively dismantled the National Security Council’s entire global security unit in 2018. At the time, Bill Gates warned NSC officials the cuts to the global health disease infrastructure would render the United States vulnerable to the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.”
Without government support, it’s impossible to coordinate, build, implement and sustain the infrastructure to tackle large-scale infectious disease outbreaks like the coronavirus. Yet political leaders seem to think committing resources to preparedness is useful only during a pandemic. It’s critical for the government to establish and support a system that can be ready to launch response plans and protocols quickly.
Businesses’ Role: Prepare For The Long Term
Businesses have to consider employees and clients, but facilities come first because workplaces are the first line of social contact for Americans. A safe return to work in the near future requires a thoughtful, dedicated and carefully coordinated system, supported by adequate funding. Every workplace needs its own industry-specific and site-specific plan based on best practice and sound public health strategies. And this takes input from industry experts and all stakeholders involved, from owners and property managers to the leadership teams of the businesses that rent their facilities and offices.
All businesses will need to rework their office spaces, but it will take more than removing desks and chairs to create more space between workers. The novel coronavirus can be spread through surface contamination as well as aerosols and will take significant mitigation, often on the part of building owners and property managers, to stop it from spreading in office spaces. Offices will need a higher ratio of fresh air, better filters for recirculating air and humidity controls to limit the growth of the virus.
Office spaces will also need to strike a balance between bringing people together to collaborate and offering them enough safe personal space. They will also need to be reconfigurable should workers ebb and flow as schedules are staggered. And circulation paths will have to expand to six feet or more, and perhaps even be directional to keep people distanced.
Telecommuting, videoconferencing, social distancing, touchless systems, and cleaning and disinfection procedures should be built into business and commerce practices. Surfaces and textiles must be chosen for their ability to be cleaned easily and durability to withstand frequent sanitizing efforts. These practices must be part of a broader plan that covers preparedness not just for getting back to work now, but also to protect against future epidemics that are sure to emerge.
Make Preparedness Continuous, Comprehensive And Routine
With over 6 million Covid-19 cases in the U.S. at the time of this writing, it’s clear the U.S. was not prepared. Nor has it caught up. By these measures, it’s time to recognize that response plans must be part of everyone’s lives going forward.
For businesses, that means all commercial structures — from office buildings to manufacturing plants to warehouses — must be revamped to protect workers. Air filtration systems, floor plans, circulation paths, furnishings and more must be able to inhibit pathogen spread. It’s time to stop the cycle of emergency preparedness negligence to protect against future pandemics that are sure to emerge.
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