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Want to Go Back to the Office? Don’t Wait on the CDC

Thought Leader: Scott Gottlieb
May 3, 2021
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By WWSG exclusive speakers Scott Gottlieb and Caitlin Rivers

Welcome to summer camp 2021. Please stay at least 3 feet away from your bunkmate at all times, and 6 feet from all other campers and counselors. Children should wear masks during activities that “have the potential to produce respiratory droplets,” among them “shouting”—and that goes for outside as well as in. Avoid “close contact” sports, especially indoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued these intricate recommendations last week. Businesses waiting for guidance on reopening offices safely should take heed: The CDC can’t be the sole guide. Act now to set up sensible guidelines that your company can adjust quickly as conditions change.

The CDC is being asked to weigh in on everything involved in a safe return to work and play. Businesses are fearful to step out on their own without expert input. As a result, the CDC is being asked to come up with—and keep up to date—advice for every facet of life.

In last week’s guidance relaxing use of masks, the CDC didn’t mention the office. Businesses have an opportunity to convene public-health experts and develop safe operating principles. These partnerships could help businesses develop practical guidance for their environments.

The pandemic is evolving, and the advice will have to evolve, too. The vaccination campaign is still under way, and the virus continues to circulate widely. Transmission will likely slow in the summer and fall. But the CDC will always lean toward caution and may be slow to update its rules as the facts change. What workplaces need is a flexible framework that can adjust guidance based on shifting measures of risk.

Even as vaccination rates rise, outbreaks will still happen. In the winter, flu season will require stronger measures to prevent the spread of respiratory pathogens in the workplace.

Workplace health starts with asking employees to get vaccinated and making access to vaccines easier, including vaccination drives in the workplace. Employees should also stay home and seek testing if they or their close contacts are unwell. Braving a cold to come into the office will be a taboo. Businesses will have to provide ready access to testing, perhaps by distributing tests that can be taken at home. Workplaces will also have to improve airflow and filtration in confined spaces.

Over the winter, emerging cases may require businesses to limit large meetings and maintain systems for contact tracing. For employees who commute on mass transit, the use of masks will be encouraged, and employers should provide high-quality ones. The goal is to keep the virus from entering the workplace and, when that fails, to keep it from spreading.

If the business community leads, it can craft recommendations tailored to different types of work settings. Public-health input into work life is here to stay, and businesses should embrace this obligation, seizing the chance to develop practical principles for safety.

Dr. Gottlieb is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, 2017-19. He serves on the boards of Pfizer and Illumina. Ms. Rivers, an epidemiologist, is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

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