‘Use an abundance of caution,’ Dr. Leana Wen urges business leaders during GBC webinar on COVID-19

Dr. Leana Wen

During a May 19, 2020, Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) Newsmaker Speaker Series Zoom webinar, national public health expert Dr. Leana Wen provided an update on the coronavirus pandemic to the regional business community. She discussed considerations related to the relaxing of restrictions and returning to work and what businesses should be doing to prepare. GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry moderated the discussion.

In her opening remarks, Dr. Wen, who is an emergency physician and Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management at George Washington University Milken School of Public Health and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner, mentioned her appearance at a previous GBC Newsmaker on March 12 and said, “We’ve seen the terrible toll COVID-19 has had on our lives and our livelihoods” since then and noted that it’s “only been two months” since the pandemic arrived in this country.

On the topic of social distancing, Dr. Wen said, it has paid off, but we are going to see cases surge again. “Fifty states are reopening in some capacity this week and a lot of public health officials would say we are not ready to do so. Nothing about this virus has changed. It’s still just as contagious as it was two months ago.”

As those states begin to reopen, Dr. Wen suggested some things we can do to reduce the risk of each encounter, such as considering the distance between desks, suggesting staggered schedules and having students spend half a day outside.

Dr. Wen also provided some specific advice to employers about the reopening process:

  • The virus is most likely to be transmitted indoors, in crowded spaces where people are gathered for a period of time. She reminded the webinar attendees that “social distancing is a privilege not everyone has. If you can stay home, do so. I would advocate people stay working remotely as much as possible. For all kinds of reasons we should try to limit non-essential work.”
  • Have a plan for return, someone who is in charge of implementing that plan and potentially eliminating break areas and meeting rooms.
  • Messaging to your employees is exceedingly important. “Talk about what we know and what we don’t know,” Dr. Wen said. It would not be responsible for any of us to say, ‘You are safe.’ Because you’re not. Be really upfront and honest about the steps you’re taking.”

Even with taking precautions, however, Dr. Wen said, “I fear that we will not just have a second wave, but multiple waves” and there could be an even greater recurrence in the fall during flu season.

Some things to think about, according to Dr. Wen, are:

  • The potential for a vaccine or treatment
  • Timelines in relation to reopening — paying particular attention to timelines from weeks to months, not days to weeks
  • Preparation for a surge in the fall
  • A national strategy
  • Clear messaging

During a question-and-answer session, Dr. Wen, who is a contributing columnist for the Washington Post and appears frequently on CNN, MSNBC and BBC, fielded questions about contact tracing, vaccines, antibodies, racial and socio-economic disparities in communities of color and ways to protect your staff and communicate with them about precautions taken at their place of employment.

She said the key to reopening is “a combination of testing, tracing and isolation. All three have to come together.”

About the disparities, Dr. Wen said, “In Baltimore, COVID-19 has very forcefully unmasked these underlying disparities,” which are due to several factors, including underlying health conditions, the likelihood of being an essential worker without the privilege of telecommunication and living in denser housing. She also said this emphasizes the need for affordable health care, free testing, going to where the people are and providing access to food.

In her closing remarks, Dr. Wen urged her audience to remember, “We are reopening regardless of whether it’s safe to do so, despite not having the capabilities to do so safely. We need to reduce risks as much as possible. Use an abundance of caution.”

Resources: Dr. Wen recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, cdc.org.

Also see:


COVID-19: GBC Coverage and Response

COVID-19 Resources and Helpful Websites

Special Update on State and Federal Legislation Related to COVID-19

Coverage of GBC Member companies’ philanthropic responses to COVID-19