The MSBA hosted Trudy Henson, the Public Health Program Director for the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, for a crucial and timely free webinar titled “Covid-19 Planning Considerations from a Public Health Perspective,” on May 4, 2020. MSBA President Dana Williams introduced Ms. Henson, whose work focuses on legal and policy responses to disasters. She holds a law degree from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and has written about mass fatality planning and legal considerations.
Ms. Henson talked about what we know about the SARS Cov-2 (Covid-19) virus, including that it can live on surfaces four to 72 hours depending on the type of surface; it can stay in the air through aerosolized droplets for up to three hours; and it can travel in the air depending on temperature, air currents, and humidity. Epidemiological modeling shows sneezing, coughing, and even talking loudly can project aerosolized droplets containing the virus up to nine feet in the air. A study in China and Singapore, both of which have strict testing protocols, showed that up to 50% of people infected with Covid-19 contracted it from pre-symptomatic people. We also know that preexisting conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity put individuals at higher risk of complications from Covid-19; these conditions are not necessarily small subsets of the population.
Ms. Henson also talked about what we don’t yet know about Covid-19, including how to treat it or when we’ll have a vaccine or herd immunity. Even when there is a vaccine, priority will likely be given to people based on their risk of complications. It is unknown whether people who have recovered from Covid-19 have lasting immunity, similar to the chicken pox, or whether the immunity will wear off, similar to seasonal flu.
What we do and do not know about Covid-19 have implications for law firms and other businesses as they plan to reopen while protecting employees. Ms. Henson noted that to call this a “new normal” is almost a disservice … it is just “new.” Business owners should create a culture of safety for those who return to work. This should include developing policies for employees returning to work after a positive or presumptive case of Covid-19 (or even just known exposure to Covid-19). All employers will need to do a wholesale assessment of their offices’ safety issues, including the flow of the office, the setup and use of office furniture, and whether employees can be sufficiently distant from others. If physical distance is difficult, employers may want to add plastic sneeze guards, require the wearing of masks, or implement fixed, staggered scheduling, which would make it easier for employees to avoid close contact and for employers to conduct contact tracing if necessary. Employers should understand and work with employees who are medically vulnerable or live with those who are; also, the mental health of employees cannot be ignored.
As other states begin to reopen, law firms and other businesses in Maryland will have benefit of observing the health impact of reopening businesses and possibly learn and adjust based on what occurs. Ms. Henson’s presentation can be viewed in its entirety, below.