The rapid infection of more than 12 percent of the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt reveals the profound problems facing the Navy in preventing the spread of COVID-19 through its fleet.
The need for frequent testing of the entire crew, quarantine for crews before boarding, disciplined contact tracing protocols, space for isolation of those who had contact with anyone found positive, and incentives for immediate self-reporting of any symptoms are straight forward. More problematic is redesigning onboard spaces and work practices (compartmentalization) to allow for small living and working groups so that a single infection be contained and prevented from spreading to the entire ship.
Meanwhile, on land, America needs to get back to work. Getting there won’t be quick or easy. The current “stay at home” orders in place in many parts of the nation will not, in themselves, eradicate the viral threat. Those orders serve to “flatten the infection curve,” reducing the caseload at hospitals to a manageable level.
Epidemic curves, however, have a long trailing tail. Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimates that “in June, some 95 percent of Americans will still be susceptible to the virus.” Tell America in May that it’s time to go back to work, to the ballpark, to church services, and by the end of June, infection rates will soar again.
The Navy case provides some analogous guidance for workplaces.
First most, test results for every worker, together with a period of quarantine, before anyone returns to the workplace. After that, workers will need to be tested regularly for the early identification of those likely to infect others. As the epidemic subsides, the tests can become less frequent.
No worker that has any of the symptoms of COVID-19 can be allowed in the workplace. To incentivize the workers to honestly report their symptoms (and symptoms they observe in their families and other regular contacts), there must be fully-paid sick leave (with no firings due to illness.) There will be some slackers who will take advantage of generous sick leave, but better to absorb that cost than to have an entire business shut down for months because it has become an infection “hot spot.” Whether governments contribute financially to universal sick leave will be a decision for their legislatures. Still, it is a reality that many businesses will not be able to carry the entire cost of sick leave during this crisis.
Even with universal testing and paid sick leave, some COVID-19 infections will show up in the workplace. For containment, businesses will have to re-arrange the workplace as much as possible into compartmented spaces and routines, limiting daily close contact to a few people (ideally, ten or less.)
Compartmentalizing work will be extremely challenging. Businesses will need to start making changes to the workplace now, well before beginning to operate again. Changes will be costly in material and in training time. Again, legislatures might make loans and other support available for this purpose.
There are several advantages most businesses have over the Navy. One is that already a significant number of people are getting experience working from home. Initially, many of those who can successfully work from home should remain there, allowing for more space at work for social distancing. Also, workers testing positive or showing symptoms can isolate at home (the Navy can airlift only a limited number of infected crew members off of ships at sea.)
Businesses will need to train staff in keeping records of all workplace contacts. If a worker is tested positive, this is the best way to rapidly quarantine all whom they have had contact with and thus increase the odds of containing the virus spread. Contact tracing has been underemployed to date in the United States, but it will become essential if we want to climb our way back to normalcy.
There must be strong incentives for businesses to adopt best practices, even when these practices will add significantly to the costs of doing business. The best motivation will likely be for managers to know that authorities will swiftly shut them down if their office or factory becomes an infection “hot spot.”
The economic costs of the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States will be staggering. Unfortunately, there will be many businesses that will go under because their operating margins are so small that they will not be able to adjust to the sudden new realities of having this highly infectious disease in our midst.
During the coming year or two before there is a proven vaccine (with COVID-19 becoming more of a nuisance than a deadly contagion), the available path to getting the economy on the long road back is to start now with new ways of doing business.
Charles Knight is a military policy analyst living in Cambridge, MA, USA. He is Emeritus Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, Washington, DC.