The United States is bracing itself for a challenging winter. Immunity-evading Covid-19 variants are spreading quickly, fewer people are wearing masks, and many have decided that the pandemic is over. To complicate matters further, the flu is back, giving rise to the ‘twindemic’ that many experts feared.
If navigating this new phase of the pandemic seems more confusing than in prior years, it’s because it is. Yet one thing has become clear: to control the pandemic over the longer term, health investments and protections must extend beyond our public health agencies. Private companies and employers have an opportunity to step up to promote and protect public health.
This became obvious early in the pandemic, as workplaces became hotbeds of disease transmission, blurring the lines between private and public health. Outbreaks like that in South Dakota, where 44% of all cases were traced back to the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, heightened awareness of the central role companies and their physical environment play in our health. Many of those who became ill did not work in the plant, and public health measures taken by the meatpacker could have prevented illness and death inside and outside its walls, protecting the broader community, the company’s bottom line, and the economy.
A person’s health status is deeply impacted by their surroundings—whether these are workplaces, living spaces, transit systems, or places of worship. There is no invisible wall between public and private spaces. And while the spread of respiratory viruses in close working quarters caught the public’s attention during the Covid-19 pandemic, workplace transmission of the seasonal flu has been an issue for years. The 2018 flu season triggered productivity losses estimated at $21 billion.
Such losses are not inevitable. Throughout the pandemic, some companies took deliberate steps to protect the health and safety of their workers and minimize disruption of business operations. Some implemented on-site diagnostic testing and hosted vaccination drives. Others improved the air ventilation and filtration of their buildings once airborne transmission of the virus became clear.
The US government has taken steps to encourage private companies to act, including through the launch of a Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which urges improvements in central heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, installing in-room air cleaning devices, and bringing clean fresh air from outdoors when possible. More recently, the Biden Administration hosted a summit on Improving Indoor Air Quality.
Corporations that were early adopters of cutting-edge technologies also began to monitor the wastewater flowing out of their building’s pipes for early detection of Covid-19 infections. With infected individuals shedding the virus in their stool irrespective of symptoms or vaccination status, wastewater intelligence provides an early warning signal of threats to workers’ health and business operations.
Investments in such measures will protect against more than Covid-19. They will prevent the spread of many illnesses, including respiratory diseases such as influenza, which can also be detected in wastewater and whose transmission can be curtailed by improved ventilation.
To be sure, these investments require upfront capital outlays that companies may question, especially at a time when many companies remain unsure of how many employees, especially white-collar workers, will return to in-person work.
However, with the pandemic threat far from over, the investments will pay off, not only for employees, their families, and communities but also for employers who benefit from reduced absenteeism and greater productivity. The benefits will be greater still for companies and employees working in settings, such as factories and warehouses, that can only operate through in-person work.
Either way, C-suite executives should begin budgeting for such innovations now and continuing those already in place. Such actions could usher in a paradigm shift in how we approach worker’s health: not only as a set of occupational health requirements but also as an investment in one’s workforce that has ripple benefits across society, driving a virtuous cycle of public and private health.
Nour Sharara is a 2022 Aspen New Voices Fellow. She is a global public health expert who advised West African Ministries of Health on epidemic preparedness and response in the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola epidemic. She currently works at the intersection of public health and technology and is a Public Health Scientist at Biobot Analytics, a wastewater analytics company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.