Three Ideas for the Next Phase

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders around the world have been forced to make decisions based on the best information available at that time. Some guidance was common sense, like using hand sanitizer or staying home if you feel sick, while other decisions were far-reaching and unprecedented, like closures of schools, businesses, and public places. 

With each passing day we learn more about the COVID-19 virus. We learn more about who is most at risk, what therapies are effective, how the virus is transmitted, and which practices best help us limit the spread. And with this new information, we must regularly revisit decisions and past guidance to ensure we have the most responsible plans in place going forward. Sometimes we’ll make revisions that place further restrictions on certain places or activities, and sometimes we’ll make revisions that relax prior restrictions.

As the President, Governor, and health officials discuss possible changes to stay-at-home policies currently in place, I think it’s helpful for us to consider how things might look in the weeks ahead.

First, we should evaluate businesses and public places by their number of customers or visitors and the density those customers or visitors would experience in that business or public place. Instead of ordering a business or place to close because of the category in to which it falls, we should consider traffic volume and density to be the metric for permitting safe operation. For example, I spoke with a constituent this week who owns a small furniture store. He said they never have more than a few people in the store at any given time, yet they’re not permitted to be open under current rules. By contrast, a big box store is free to sell furniture and could have far more traffic in their store. One option for evaluating traffic volume or density limits could be to use the fire code occupancy limits that each business or public place already has established, and restrict that occupancy to a certain percentage of the normal limits. This would allow more places to open, but with restrictions in place to promote social distancing and limit interpersonal contact.

Second, we should also prepare for quick intervention where confirmed cases are known. As Governor Pritzker and others have said, the key to containment is testing, tracing, and treatment. We should work with local health departments and hospitals on rapid response protocols that include isolation of positive patients, mass testing of those who have come in contact with positive patients, and sanitation of places which may be linked to spread. For example, a cluster of positive cases was recently identified at Hormel’s Rochelle Foods plant. Working with local health department officials, city leaders, Hormel management, and local hospitals, we were able to put a temporary closure, sanitation plan, mass testing of nearly 800 employees, and isolation protocol in place to identify the full extent of the cluster. As many areas continue to experience a bottleneck in testing, we should consider using a pooled testing method that has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which 10 individual samples are pooled in one test to quickly process and rule out negative results while focusing on positive cases.

Third, we should give further guidance on use of PPE or homemade masks within workplaces, in stores and restaurants, and in public places. This will both help health officials and employers plan for supplies of PPE and provide reassurance to people who get mixed messages about when, where, and how to use masks to help limit the spread. Efforts could also be made to enlist employers in voluntary adoption of mask-wearing, such as the effort recently undertaken by Rep. Mark Batinick with his “Let’s Face It” project.

As we continue to work to protect the health and safety of the communities we serve, it’s important that we have open and public discussion of ideas like these. No single agency, department, or government official will have all the answers. The foundation of our democracy is built on that truth. That is why we need involvement, input, and oversight from the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary together. We need communication and coordination between federal, state, and local governments—and participation and action from the private sector and from not-for-profit organizations. But most importantly, we need open and transparent discussion of the facts around the virus, the healthcare response, and government actions.