Working Through a Pandemic (Part 1)

Smith interviews an expert on workplace disease control

Smith Communication Partners can help you navigate the choppy waters and tidal wave of Covid-19 information and messages cascading over your business and employees.

One of Smith’s partner firms is Viven Health, which has developed a unique hand hygiene training program that can be effective in protecting your employees from the coronavirus. Viven Health is led by Dr. Tom Ahrens, a research scientist who is an international authority on infectious diseases.  

We sat down with Dr. Tom a few days ago to pose a number of questions we are receiving from clients and contacts about the coronavirus and how best to keep ourselves protected. We present some of the questions and answers here for your information and will post others in the coming days and weeks. This is the first of a two-part interview. 

Dr. Tom Ahrens, thank you for speaking with us. A lot of business continuity plans are focused on weather-related or terrorism-related events, which by nature are isolated to a specific location or region. How do organizations manage a rapidly spreading virus? 

The coronavirus is similar to the flu in how it spreads. It will generally concentrate in populated areas—the more crowded we are, the more likely we are to get an infection. Typically, if you get one of the two common types of flu viruses (type A or type B) you will infect two other people. This year in the United States almost 50 million people will get the flu. What we are seeing with COVID-19 at this early stage is an infection rate of three other people, with a projected infection of 100-150 million people, or one-third to one-half of our population.

Let’s talk about employers whose people can work remotely. Are we at a point where employers should require employees who are able to work remotely to stay home? 

Absolutely. This is the simplest way to control the spread of COVID-19. This isn’t rocket science. If you are close to someone, you are at risk. We want people to avoid crowded train and subway stations. Congregating in tight areas sends your risk level up. 

When those who can work from home do so, they are bringing down the risk level for those who must be present at work to do their job. Look, employers need to figure this out now. COVID-19 is going to be an issue this fall and winter. I think in 30-60 days we’ll see a drop because of warming temperatures but expect the virus to come back with a vengeance this coming fall and winter. 

So, we’re expecting coronavirus to have seasonality? You’re saying it will recede in the summer months and come back in the winter months? 

We’re not absolutely certain, but I think so. We’ll get an idea during the summer by watching the Southern hemisphere. If the virus picks up there during our summer, which is their winter, that will be our answer. 

Now, let’s turn to employers who need their folks on the ground to do their jobs. Healthcare, police, transit, public works, grocery stores, gas stations. What should employers be doing to proactively protect these employees?

It’s all about managing the chain of touchpoints. As much as you can, put a physical barrier between you and your customer. You want to reduce how much the customer can breathe on you. Also, there needs to be very careful handling of money. Let’s say I give you money and you have to handle it; you must keep your fingers out of your mouth, nose and eyes until you sanitize again. Any surface you subsequently touch before you sanitize again should be considered contaminated. But as you know, this applies to the cold, flu, any virus. 

Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Ahrens will be published tomorrow, March 19, 2020.

Keep in mind that Smith can help you build and implement your communications strategy around the coronavirus. For more information, call your usual Smith contact or call Don Sanford of Smith’s St. Louis office at 314.348.4687.

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