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“These are unprecedented times.”

How many times have you heard that in the past six weeks – unprecedented times? Despite its current use as the buzzword for the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also quite appropriate. Most of the U.S. population is under some form of “Shelter-in-Place” or “Stay at Home” order, the global economy is contracting at rates not seen in decades, unemployment rates are reaching levels not felt in generations, and the stock market looks like it is taking a ride on the newest roller coaster at your local Six Flags. Pretty unprecedented.

How do we move forward?

The truth is that no one really knows. However, several leading public health experts, scientists, economists, legal experts, and scholars have been studying data behind the scenes to devise action plans that can allow the U.S. to start to safely reopen and for people to gain some form of normalcy, albeit still tame compared to days past for quite some time. One of the first such plans was the “National Coronavirus Response: A Road Map to Reopening,” published on March 28. 2020 by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Since that time, the federal Administration has issued “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” which focuses on providing guidance for governors and local officials in developing plans to reopen, and the “Road Map to Pandemic Resilience” published by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics (Safra Center). Meanwhile, regional state governors are collaborating on plans for re-opening states in their areas. When, if, and how any of these road maps come to fruition remains to be seen, as each plan differs somewhat on process and timeline.

There are so many road maps! Finding the best one seems quite daunting.”

Indeed, daunting is a good word for it. However, giving each a closer look, we see a common theme emerging – that of a phased, customized approach, based on data, scientific evidence, and recommendations from public health experts:

  • The Administration’s Guidelines are easier for the public to digest, because they outline three phases that use results-based “gating criteria” for moving between phases – namely, downward trajectories of symptoms and cases over a 14-day period, ability of the health care system to treat patients without crisis care, and robust testing. Communities would use these gating criteria to determine when they are ready to initiate further actions to reopen, and the Administration gives examples of how this would appear in business, community, and social settings.
  • AEI’s and the Safra Center’s Road Maps also include phased concepts, but they are focused more on actions by the scientific and medical communities before additional phases are implemented. Both rely heavily on significant scaling up of testing capabilities and contract tracing technologies.

However, these road maps then take fairly divergent paths. Safra Center’s Road Map recommends using testing and tracing capabilities and supported isolation and quarantine programs for mobilized sectors of the workforce. AEI’s Road Map, on the other hand, looks at how testing, contact tracing, therapeutic treatments, and development of vaccines allow us to reopen.

AEI’s Road Map envelops much of Administration’s Guidelines in the first two of its four phases:

  • Phase I: Slow It Down. AEI’s first phase, called “Slow the Spread”, may long be remembered as the Flatten The Curve It’s where we are now, and forms the baseline for the Administration’s Guidelines. We have seen the spread of COVID-19 grow from an issue on the other side of the world to a global issue that has hit our own collective backyards in a matter of months. Now we are doing everything we can to slow down the spread of the virus, so that we can maintain – and build – capacity at our healthcare centers. Most of us are living through this phase for the first time, and these actions feel very drastic, in all aspects of our lives. Our work lives are these adjustments intersect with an Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) perspective most, from real estate investing, to property ownership and management, and updates to health and safety best management practices.
  • Phase II: Open For Business…Mostly. AEI’s second phase, called “Reopen, State by State,” is where we want to get next. All three phases of the Administration’s Guidelines are encompassed in this phase. Schools and businesses will be reopened, and we will start to iteratively approach what we once thought of as normal life, one state (or groups of states) at a time. But things will look different, including continued social distancing, caps on mass gatherings, urging older or ill people to remain in physical isolation, and asking those who are able to continue to work from home. The virus will continue to spread, but hospital supplies and, critically, tests will be made available for adequate management of the spread. From an EHS perspective, much looks the same as in Phase I, with further refinements in health and safety controls and managing environmental reporting.

AEI’s next two phases will happen – although how fast has yet to be determined. They focus on returning to normal and planning for the future:

  • Phase III: The Vaccine. AEI’s third phase, called “Establish Protection Then Lift All Restrictions” is the ultimate goal, where preventative care can be provided for vulnerable populations. The federal government and state health agencies will work with pharmaceutical companies to devise a plan for mass production, distribution, and application of the vaccine. That allows for the removal of all restrictions and a return to our daily routine (and gets Grandma out of the house!) – with some precautions, i.e., Phase IV. Companies can get back to (EHS) business – and focus on EHS management strategies and compliance obligations.
  • Phase IV: Planning Ahead. AEI’s final phase, called “Rebuild Our Readiness for the Next Pandemic,” can be considered the point where we will have made it through. Hooray! Yet, we cannot just “move on” from a generation-defining event of this magnitude without take stock in the shortcomings of existing systems. AEI’s Phase IV discusses processes to ensure there is adequate ICU capacity, improve the supply chain of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies, and help industries develop infectious disease programs. This last area is where individual companies can focus their EHS programs – designing EHS programs that will better prepare them for the next pandemic.

The past two months have wreaked havoc on the way we run our lives and our businesses, but let’s not let this be a permanent step backwards. We can take this opportunity to improve our operations and protect our employees and customers through practical and thoughtful countermeasures, and develop a level of preparedness we didn’t have before.

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