Workplace exposures

COVID-19 pandemic: Senate hearing explores the role of testing in getting people safely back to work

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Photo: Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Washington — Safely getting people back to work as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers is proving to be a complex challenge for officials at all levels of government – including health experts – as well as employers and workers.

During a May 12 hearing convened by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the topic, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) pointed to the meatpacking industry in her home state as one example. At a facility in Cold Spring, MN, the number of workers who tested positive for COVID-19 jumped to 194 on May 11 from 83 three days earlier, according to an NBC News report, causing increased concern for worker safety.

“If we move forward on reopening the economy and yet we still have circumstances like we have in these processing plants and in other places around the state, we’re going to be right back where we started, but in a worse place,” Smith said.

President Donald Trump on April 28 invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 and declared meatpacking facilities “critical infrastructure” in an Executive Order intended to keep them open. He said in a press release that meatpacking employers are responsible for following joint OSHA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voluntary interim guidance – issued two days earlier – aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among workers in the meatpacking and poultry-processing industries.

Responding to a question from Smith about what guidance he would give to workers in her state, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said “inevitable upticks” in COVID-19 cases at places such as meatpacking plants will require “the optimum degree of protection for the workers involved, the ability to allow them to go to work safely, and if and when individuals get infected, to immediately be able to get them out and get them the proper care.”

Fauci also warned that states allowing businesses to reopen now could see a rise in future cases. “My concern is that we would start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” he said. “The consequences could be really serious.”

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services and overseer of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 testing efforts, projected that 40 million to 50 million tests could be performed nationwide each month by September.

That number of tests would provide workers and students “enough confidence to go back to work and back to school,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the HELP Committee. “What our country has done so far in terms of testing is impressive, but not nearly enough. Staying at home indefinitely is not the way to end this pandemic. There is not enough money available to help all those hurt by a closed economy. All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing, tracking, isolation, treatment and vaccines.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the committee, called on the Trump administration to submit a specific plan on testing for schools and other workplaces.

“We need an effective national coronavirus testing plan in place to reopen schools and make sure students and educators are safe and healthy – and I’ll keep holding this administration accountable for developing that plan,” Murray tweeted May 14.

On April 23, the National Safety Council announced the launch of SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns, a comprehensive, multifaceted effort to guide employers through the process of safely resuming traditional work and operations now and in a post-COVID-19 pandemic environment.

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