As we approach Day 6 of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order and nearly a month into our Lab’s response to the COVID-19 virus, I want to let you know that the Laboratory is doing everything possible to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our Lab population and our community. We’ve asked nearly all of our people to telework, reduced on-site staffing to a minimum, and instituted a number of safeguards for those people who must come on site to maintain essential functions for the Laboratory. I’m grateful that as of today, we have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection at the Lab.
Still, I want to be sure we are clear, consistent, and realistic about our expectations. It is quite likely, certain in fact, that individuals who work for the Lab will become infected at some point. Our hard-working Health Services team has investigated a number of situations in the past three weeks in which individuals have reported symptoms they feel are consistent with COVID-19.
This is to be expected. We want people to report to their health care provider or to Health Services when they are concerned about their symptoms. Please remember that when someone reports symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, this does not indicate that we have a case on site. There are many reasons an individual might report symptoms, especially during flu season. I urge you not to spread unverified or speculative information at this time of heightened concern.
So far, none of the cases we have investigated has turned into a confirmed case of COVID-19 infection, and in all cases, risks of exposure to individuals have been in the low to no risk categories based on the CDC’s definitions. Still, because the knowledge of these investigations may cause people concern, I want to take this opportunity to explain the processes we follow when someone has a concern about a potential COVID-19 infection at the Lab.
One way we might become aware of a concern is when someone reports their symptoms to Health Services. In this case, the Lab has long-standing procedures for anyone who comes in to see us with a potentially infectious disease (we prefer for people to call before coming in). Health Services staff are trained to handle these situations and have the proper equipment. If the symptoms are consistent with COVID-19, we would refer the individual to their health care provider and to our community public health departments.
The second and more likely scenario is our public health authorities would notify us that an individual who works at the Lab has either a presumptive or confirmed infection. In that case, the individual would already be self-isolating under the direction of public health, and the person would not be allowed back at Lab sites until they are cleared to return to work by health professionals.
The Lab’s role in this scenario is to determine who, if anyone, at the Lab the individual came in close personal contact with during the period of time they may have been infectious. We work with the individual and their supervisor to identify those who were potentially exposed. Those individuals determined to be at risk would be contacted and advised of the appropriate response, to include asking them to monitor their own health, contact their health care providers, or self-isolate. Note that every situation we investigate is different, and we make a determination of the risk of exposure to each individual based on CDC guidance, coordinating with public health authorities as appropriate.
Let me emphasize that while those people who are found to have been at increased risk of exposure would be notified, per public health guidance, they would not be notified of the identity of the person who has a confirmed case. We must and will protect the personal health information of everyone at the Lab, just as you should expect that we will protect your personal information. It is no one’s right to know the identity of anyone and their health status, though in some cases it might be possible to guess someone’s identity. The public health response would likely also lead to the closure and cleaning of some areas, buildings, or rooms, as needed, based on our risk evaluation and sanitation and decontamination protocols.
Our public health authorities have indicated that many of us may ultimately become infected. The vast majority of those infected will recover with mild symptoms; a relatively small fraction will require medical care. After an individual recovers, they can return to normal activity and do not present a continued risk to anyone. This should go without saying, but we’re all in this together, and we will all recover together. I want to make sure that when we return to work, we’re welcoming everyone back to our Lab community regardless of our individual, and temporary, health experiences. This is consistent with our Laboratory being a respectful, trusted, and inclusive workplace.
Finally, the measures we are now taking as a society are primarily intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus so that collectively, we reduce the peak burden on our health care system, making it possible for people who urgently need treatment to receive treatment. What we all must do, for ourselves and for each other, and especially for those in our society whose health conditions make them most vulnerable, is to follow the advice of our public health authorities: stay home, keep your distance, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, call your healthcare provider if you feel ill. Just as with any hazard, none among us should make a determination that these guidelines do not apply to themselves or to their colleagues. Our cooperative behavior literally saves lives, perhaps many. I am thankful for all that our staff is doing on site to keep our Laboratory safe, now and when we return in the future.