When Is it Safe to Go Back to Work?

( Triumph Foods, Jennifer Shike, Sanford Health )

This is the last in a three-part series. Follow along as we explore how all segments of the industry are working together to fight COVID-19. Read part one here, and part two here.

As experts learn more about antibodies, PCR testing and the interplay between the two, Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, senior vice president of quality for Sanford Health, believes they will be able to quickly identify the people in a workforce who have never been affected by the virus and the people who have been affected in some way by it.

“If you've been affected in some way by the virus – you either have had a PCR or blood test positive – and you're not having symptoms anymore, you're probably safe to go back to work. [Follow CDC guidelines.] You just may or may not be safe to go back with the people who have never seen the virus before,” he says.

In those situations, he recommends dividing the workforce into multiple shifts when possible. Consider having the first shift for cleaning, the second shift for people who have never seen the virus before, and the third shift for people who have seen the virus before and could be dangerous to the second shift, but aren't dangerous to each other. Then, after the third shift gets out of the plant, clean the whole plant and restart the cycle.

“This is one way to return to something other than shutting down a plant for two or three weeks. It may not be 100% capacity, but it's certainly better than zero,” Cauwels says.

The knowledge gained from looking at the PCR status of entire populations has been extremely valuable, says Tim Loula, DVM with Swine Vet Center. He believes this information will help employees feel more comfortable continuing to work in their jobs and have less concern and fear of getting severe COVID-19.

“The packing plants have shown us the population can get through it. We will go through it when we reduce or lift the ‘stay-at-home’ order. Many experts agree we need to go through COVID-19 when we are as healthy as possible, which suggests summertime because it’s the time of lowest incidence of seasonal flu,” Loula explains.

Understanding a significant percentage of people in a population with an outbreak of COVID-19 are asymptomatic or have very mild-symptoms has been a huge relief for workers, Loula adds. 

“Workers had been afraid they were going to their farm or packing plant and could contract the virus with an unknown outcome of being infected (no symptoms, mild symptoms, hospitalization, death). Now they realize they themselves may have unknowingly become infected, or others they work with had already been infected,” Loula says. “This allows people to feel much safer going to work each day.”

Will we ever return to normal?

At some point, the country must get back to something closer to normal, Cauwels says. He thinks it’s important for people to realize two key things. 1. Social distancing works. 2. The goal was never to eliminate COVID-19.

“The goal was to slow the spread down, such that hospitals and health care systems could treat the people they needed to when they got sick and have enough protective equipment. I think we're getting incrementally closer to that,” Cauwels says. “Making sure all communities have those testing and treatment capabilities is the most important thing.”

As large businesses return to work, he believes an initial screening when people walk in the door is important – asking people if they have symptoms and checking temperatures. It’s not a perfect check on its own, but it’s a tool that can help.

Other things include easy access to cleaning supplies, whether it be cleaning your hands or cleaning the instruments you work with, and personal protective equipment. If you can provide masks, gloves and appropriate gowns, you're going to have a healthier workforce, he adds.

“Providing some sort of separation will help. The addition of things like plexiglass shields to keep people apart from each other, or different spacing in the workplace, all of those things are definitely going to do some good. The catch is, we don't know how much,” he says.

For the longest time, the U.S. has been respected for getting to work and working hard. COVID-19 asks people to do something very different than that: if you don’t feel quite perfect, stay home.

“That mentality, which is what I think makes the Midwest great, is also what keeps us at work at times when being at home might be the right thing to do,” he says.

With more data and experience under their belt regarding how to treat COVID-19, Loula says, “It’s time to open up in order to slowly get the general population exposed and develop herd immunity.”


Part One: COVID-19: The Rest of the Story

Part Two: COVID-19 Tests Reveal Surprising Results

Antibody Testing: A Critical Piece of the Puzzle (for People and Pigs)

Herd Immunity in Pigs: A Case Study for Getting America Back to Work