Prompted by Jeff Bezos’s plans to test all Amazon employees for the virus that causes COVID-19, we wondered whether employers can mandate employee testing, regardless of symptoms. The issue pits public safety against personal privacy, but limited testing availability has rendered the question somewhat moot.
But as the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted, asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers can spread the virus without realizing they’re infected. To learn more about workers’ rights in this arena, we spoke to Tricia Bozyk Sherno, counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, who focuses on employment and general commercial litigation.
Sherno offered a fair amount of insight into the EEOC’s updated guidance and made some predictions about how things may look for both employers and workers going forward.
TechCrunch: Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, what sorts of laws governed an employer’s ability to test employees for infectious diseases?
Tricia Bozyk Sherno: Covered employers (employers with 15 or more employees) must comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which limits an employer’s ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations. (Note that certain states may also have similar statutes in place.) Generally, disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are prohibited by the ADA except in limited circumstances. A “medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health — so infectious disease testing would fall into this category.
President Trump on Tuesday said that he planned to stop United States funding of the World Health Organization while reviewing its role in what he described as “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
The announcement came as Mr. Trump continued to be angered by criticism of his response to the pandemic and as he sought to gain credit for how he has performed. “Everybody knows what is going on there,” he said, blaming the organization for what he described as a “disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed to his decision to impose travel restrictions on China as proof that he responded early to warnings about the dangers of the coronavirus.
He said that decision saved “thousands and thousands of lives,” and the W.H.O. “fought us.” The president blamed the organization for a “20-fold” increase in cases worldwide.
As recently as February, the W.H.O. had advised against imposing travel restrictions to places with outbreaks of the coronavirus, saying it was not an effective way combat its spread.
On Tuesday, the president said the organization “willingly took China’s assurances” and that it “defended the actions of the Chinese government, even praising its so-called transparency.”
Mr. Trump has been defensive about his decision to institute early travel restrictions on China, crediting himself with saving hundreds of thousands of lives while sustaining criticism for being xenophobic and racist.
But Mr. Trump has not addressed his administration’s inaction after that decision and the gap in the timeline of his response between the travel restrictions announced on Jan. 31 and the declaration of a national emergency on March 13.
Some European nations ease pandemic rules, but move warily.
Slowly, tentatively, a handful of European countries began lifting constraints on daily life this week for the first time since the start of the coronavirus crisis, providing an early litmus test of whether Western democracies can gingerly restart their economies and restore basic freedoms without reviving the spread of the disease.
On Tuesday, Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s crisis, reopened some bookshops and children’s clothing stores. Spain allowed workers to return to factories and construction sites, despite a daily death toll that remains over 500. Austria allowed thousands of hardware and home improvement stores to reopen, as long as workers and customers wore masks.
In Denmark, elementary schoolteachers readied classrooms so young children could return to school on Wednesday, while in the Czech Republic, a restless public relished the reopening of sports centers and some shops.
When Lukas Zachoval, a sales manager in the Czech Republic, lost a tennis match to his father this week — in a 6-4, 6-3 drubbing — defeat had seldom tasted sweeter. After all, it was his first match since the Czech government began lifting sweeping restrictions on society, including a ban on communal sports, that had been in place for nearly a month.
The easing of the lockdowns was watched with interest and trepidation across Europe and beyond, and posed profound and knotty questions. Among them: Now that the rate of infection has ebbed in several countries, to what extent should political leaders prioritize concern for public health over worries about the economy?
The moves to loosen restrictions came despite a warning a week earlier by the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, who said, “Now is not the time to relax measures.”
The fledgling, country-by-country loosening, enacted without any coordination between nations, underscored the absence of any common agreement, or even understanding, about the challenge of keeping economies alive while stemming the disease.
Ecuador’s financial capital has seen a surge of dead.
When Guayaquil, Ecuador’s business capital, was first hit by the coronavirus, the devastation was so great that bodies were piling up in the streets.
Now, as the authorities begin to grapple with the scale of the crisis, they have reason to believe that the toll for the province that includes Guayaquil is likely many times larger than the official government figure of 173 dead.
The numbers are skewed because only those who test positive — dead or alive — are counted as coronavirus victims.
The usually bustling port city of about three million had 1,500 more deaths in March of this year than in the same month in 2019, Guayaquil’s mayor, Cynthia Viteri, said in an interview.
“They are not only dying from Covid,” she said, referring to the disease caused by coronavirus. “People with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease are dying from lack of medical attention, because the hospitals are saturated with the critically ill, because there aren’t places where women can give birth without getting infected.”
In addition, in the past two weeks, a special emergency team collected or authorized the burial of nearly 1,900 bodies from Guayaquil’s hospitals and homes, according to Ecuador’s government, which said that figure represented a fivefold increase in the city’s usual mortality rate.
To combat the spread of the virus, the city will resort to some of the most draconian quarantine measures in Latin America.
Security forces on Tuesday began cordoning off the contagion hot spots for up to three days at a time while medics looked door to door looking for potential cases and sanitary workers disinfected public spaces.
Ms. Viteri, the mayor, said movement to and from the hard-hit neighborhoods, located mostly in the city’s poor periphery, will be completely cut off. City authorities will provide residents with food while the operation lasts.
“The situation isn’t grave — it’s extremely grave,” said Ms. Viteri. “And we still haven’t reached a high point of infections in Guayaquil.”
Spraying disinfectant in the streets soothes nerves, but may not kill germs.
The images are compelling: Fire trucks in Tehran or Manila spray the streets. Amazon tests a disinfectant fog inside a warehouse, hoping to calm workers’ fears and get them back on the job. Families nervously wipe their mail and newly delivered groceries.
These efforts may help people feel like they and their government are combating the coronavirus. But in these still-early days of learning how to tamp down the spread of the virus experts disagree on how best to banish the infectious germs.
“There is no scientific basis at all for all the spraying and big public works programs,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Other experts are not ready to confidently dismiss disinfecting. There are just too many unknowns about this virus, said Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Lipsitch said it will be difficult to study the effectiveness of disinfecting outdoor spaces because “everyone is throwing a mix of interventions at the problem, as they should.”
Most transmission of the virus comes from breathing in droplets that an infected person has just breathed out — not from touching surfaces where it may be lurking. “Transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website.
Stay 6 feet apart, we’re told. But how far can air carry the coronavirus?
The rule of thumb, or rather feet, has been to stand six feet apart in public. That’s supposed to be a safe distance if a person nearby is coughing or sneezing and is infected with the novel coronavirus, spreading droplets that may carry virus particles.
And scientists agree that six feet is a sensible and useful minimum distance, but, some say, farther away would be better.
Six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet.
But some scientists, having looked at studies of air flow and being concerned about smaller particles called aerosols, suggest that people consider a number of factors, including their own vulnerability and whether they are outdoors or in an enclosed room, when deciding whether six feet is enough distance.
“Everything is about probability,” said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, who is the head of the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Three feet is better than nothing. Six feet is better than three feet. At that point, the larger drops have pretty much fallen down.”
Reporting was contributed by Karen Weintraub, Knvul Sheikh, James Gorman and Kenneth Chang
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