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Getting back to the office in the midst of coronavirus is going to be complicated

May 28, 2020, 7:13 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

How do you reopen a country—and workplaces specifically—on lockdown in the midst of a pandemic? We are… still figuring it out.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this week revised its guidance regarding coronavirus antibody tests, the diagnostics which tell you whether or not you’ve recovered from and developed an immune response to COVID-19. The working theory is that these tests will eventually prove critical to wide-scale reopening since those who test positive for antibodies may be able to ward off the virus and thus have a lower chance of infecting other people, as well.

But not so fast, says the CDC—such tests “should not be used to make decisions about grouping persons residing in or being admitted to congregate settings, such as schools, dormitories, or correctional facilities” and also “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace.”

Why? For one thing, many antibody tests which have been given emergency authorization during the outbreak aren’t particularly accurate. It will take time to figure out exactly which ones are. It will take even more time to figure out what the presence of these antibodies even means when it comes to immunity.

States such as Texas, South Carolina, Florida, and others have begun the reopening process, although many are still maintaining special rules such as reduced capacity and social distancing for reopened businesses (others have had a more difficult time at crowd control and enforcing public health protocols.)

In traditional office spaces, some companies will likely employ a mix of strategies. Temperature checks may become a regular part of air travel and in other businesses, for instance. Even that might come with some problems since the novel coronavirus has a weeks-long incubation period, meaning you may not have symptoms such as a fever despite being infected.

Distancing within enclosed spaces may very well become a norm. And at some companies, like pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, the employees who are still expected to come in to manufacturing plants to make drugs have safety mechanisms in place.

“We have a mechanism for that employee to be tested, and we also have the ability to track the contacts that that person may have had in a plant to alert the people who may have been in contact with them,” Bristol-Myers CEO Giovanni Caforio told me for Fortune‘s latest print issue.

Overall, coming back into work will likely prove a multi-pronged, gradual, and complex dance for many businesses. If you have any personal stories about how your own business is grappling with the process, please shoot me a note.

Read on for the day’s news, and we’ll see you again next week.

Sy Mukherjee


Europe wants to leverage 5G to recover from COVID-19. There have been conspiracy theories abound regarding 5G and its ostensible link to COVID-19 (to be clear, there's no proof any of that is true). Ironically, 5G may actually be a critical tool in the fight to modernize digital infrastructure in the wake of widespread lockdowns that have revealed deep shortcomings in data access, my colleague David Meyer writes. “The pandemic and its consequences on our lives and economies have highlighted the importance of digitization across all areas of EU economy and society,” said European Union officials. “New technologies have kept our businesses and public services running and made sure that trade could continue flowing. They have helped us all to stay connected, to work remotely, and to support our children’s learning.” (Fortune)


Quest Diagnostics' COVID-19 test kit gets FDA emergency authorization. Lab testing giant Quest Diagnostics has won FDA emergency authorization for a coronavirus test which can be self-administered in people's homes. This isn't an antibody test—it's a nasal swab which can be used to detect an active infection. (WHBL)

Novartis gets in on the coronavirus vaccine hunt with a manufacturing boost. Yet another drug giant is joining the race for coronavirus vaccine development. Switzerland-based Novartis will join with Massachusetts General Hospital and Massachusetts Eye and Ear on its experimental vaccine with a very specific mission: to help ramp up the manufacturing capacity for the vaccine. Novartis is suited to assist since the vaccine will rely on manufacturing processes similar to those used for existing Novartis gene therapies such as the spinal muscular atrophy drug Zolgensma. (Reuters)


Coronavirus cases soar past 60,000 for health care workers. New CDC figures find that more than 60,000 American health workers have contracted coronavirus and nearly 300 have died. These frontline workers are, by the nature of their jobs, susceptible even though they use medical grade protective gear. In the broader population, the U.S. crossed a grim milestone as COVID-19 deaths crossed 100,000 people. (NPR)

Just half of Americans say they'd get a coronavirus vaccine. Despite all of this grim news, a surprising number of Americans polled by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research say they wouldn't (as of now) get a coronavirus vaccine should one be approved. About 20% say they wouldn't get one at all, while another 31% weren't sure. Close to half said they would get a vaccine. (Associated Press)


More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemploymentby Lance Lambert

'No mask, no service' rule is OK for NY businesses, Cuomo saysby The Associated Press

Pandemic lockdowns pose a new risk to working momsby Claire Zillman

How remote work may exacerbate diversity issues for companiesby Danielle Abril

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