empty office

By BEN GLICKMAN and PHOEBE PINDER

New York City — the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic — entered its first phase of reopening on June 8. Of course essential workers — doctors, firefighters, grocery store workers, mail deliverers — have been on the job since the beginning of the pandemic. But now, for the first time in months, the city that was once deemed a war zone by hospital workers allowed some residents who are non-essential to return to their workplaces.

With most of the country ahead of New York in reopening, employers are searching for ways of returning their employees to the workplace safely. But, with national and state authorities issuing advice across the map, several companies are offering their own services to help facilitate the return to the office.

US Healthy Work is a start-up offering a subscription-based advisory service on return to work. Founded by former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, the company markets itself as “a one-stop solution for safely opening up and running your business.”

The company offers advice both on when companies should return to the workplace, which is partly based on declining cases of Covid-19 in the area, and on how the company can create a protocol to remain in compliance with regulations and return employees safely.

Individualized risk analysis

Dr. Nick van Terheyden, an emergency room physician by training, now works with US Healthy Work advising the company’s clients. He and his colleagues noticed the extent to which people were struggling to interpret the tsunami of information and guidelines being released by official sources, each touted as the best Covid safety practices or the latest understanding, but changing practically by the day.

“How is the average person supposed to make sense of this?” Dr. van Terheyden asked in a recent interview with CHC. “We want to be the resource that [people and employers] can access that allows them to interpret the latest and greatest data and how that practically applies in their setting to their business and their individual circumstance.”

For each business that comes to them, US Healthy Work will perform an individualized risk analysis based on that business’s location, type, and the types of people that will be frequenting it. Next, they will go through a list of relevant policies and procedures to determine which practices can be implemented at that specific business — for example, can employees stagger work days? Can office space be reconfigured to allow for social distancing? Based on these analyses, the business receives input on  best practices going forward. US Healthy Work also offers town hall meetings that clients can attend for additional information.

Dr. van Terheyden says that US Healthy Work bases advice to clients on “science and the latest understanding.” Although he acknowledges that groups like the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention base their recommendations on scientific research, they do not take into account the specific risks of certain areas.

Drawing on different resources

The Phia Group, a provider of healthcare cost containment techniques, relied on three different resources in crafting its reopening plan: separate plans published by insurance companies HUB International and Marsh and McLennan, and guidance released by the state of Massachusetts on reopening office spaces.

“Individual states have been releasing more comprehensive guidance in line with state requirements, but the lack of national guidance is not ideal,” Brady Bizarro, director of legal compliance and regulatory affairs for The Phia Group, wrote in an email.

The state of Massachusetts, where The Phia Group is based, released guidelines that all businesses must meet in order to return to office spaces, including limits on the number of employees in the office and required daily cleaning of the entire space. Many states have released similar guidelines, but specific measures vary from state to state: While Massachusetts requires that all offices operate at less than 25 percent occupancy, Colorado requires less than 50 percent. Wisconsin has no requirement for limiting occupancy.

Meanwhile, insurance companies like HUB International and Marsh and McLennan have released their own evaluations of risk associated with reopening and how to remain compliant with workplace regulations from different agencies. These plans offer yet another set of recommendations.

Some trade associations supply information too. For example, here’s a New York State Dental Association return to work page.

Testing-centered approach

While some have grappled with advice on safe policies for a return to the workplace, others are offering different kinds of testing.

Color Genomics, a San Francisco-based population health company, launched a testing initiative to facilitate companies’ returns to the workplace. The company repurposed laboratories and equipment for Covid-19 testing in March, and has offered testing for frontline workers since then.

In a blog post on Color’s website, Caroline Savello, chief commercial officer at the company, emphasized the importance of testing in the return to the office. “Employer-driven testing and containment procedures will be critical to successful return to work efforts,” she wrote.

Urgent care centers have also begun to offer return to work testing services as well. CityMD in the New York City area and Washington state, which has offered walk-in Covid-19 testing during the pandemic, offers a return to work program that clears employees based on results for Covid-19 through its occupational health program. Piedmont Urgent Care in Georgia offers training for company staff to perform workplace screening, as well as offering at-home screening before employees come to work.

Murphy Medical Associates, a Connecticut-based private medical practice, offers nasal-swab and antibody testing for Covid-19. The practice runs drive-through testing sites throughout Connecticut and in parts of New York, and also has testing in its trailers on employers’ sites.

——

Other posts in our return to the office series:

Here’s how one big New York area company is doing it

Companies plan their return to the office

Legal and other issues in the return to the office

Ben Glickman

Ben Glickman is a student journalist at Brown University with experience with data analysis, investigative tools and audio storytelling. He is passionate about holding power...