Today we publish part two in a three-part series where renowned physician Dr. David Agus shares valuable insight into the things companies and employees should consider when thinking about returning to shared office spaces. While the first article focused on health, today Dr. Agus explores how contact tracing — the use of digital tools to monitor who infected people come in contact with — will help curb the spread of COVID-19 as offices start opening up. He also discusses whether antibody tests matter; and if your health privacy will be impacted.
In the wake of the partnership between Apple and Google to create a contact-tracing system, the technology powerhouses responded to privacy concerns by banning the use of location tracking in any app using the service. Meanwhile, as reported by the Wall Street Journal today, companies are already diving into contact tracing head-on with thermal cameras to measure body temperature, contact tracing phone apps, surveillance systems, and more.
Here, Dr. Agus discusses his stance on contact tracing from a scientific perspective. The following are excerpts from our conversation with him that have been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Easy, accessible testing
I think we do need to make it convenient and easy for employees to be tested, especially in regard to COVID-19. I do think, going forward, developing ways to manage and outsource the testing is going to be critical, no question about it.
But it’s complicated. Two years ago, the EEOC was sued by AARP, American Association of Retired Persons, saying [they] don’t want companies to have wellness clinics, for privacy reasons. Because if I’m a company leader and I know you have diabetes, I could decide to send Jane to Europe and not you. And sometimes, it’s going to be harder on employers because those with diabetes will be in the diabetes center, not working. And so I think the separation of church and state is important in order to mitigate that potential bias.
At the same time, you have to make it easy for your employees to be tested and develop those existing surveillance programs. Right now testing is PCR-based, meaning it amplifies bits of the genetic material of the virus to give you a readout.
Going forward, that test will be based on an antigen, which means it’s a much easier, quicker, cheaper test. Where you can do enough tests in an hour to tell a very large number of people whether they have the virus.
The importance of immunity tests
Then there’s a concept of immunity testing that’s going forward. We don’t have it yet in this country, but we’ll have an immunity test, where I can say, “Hey, this 20% of my workforce. They can actually be a buffer between somebody who doesn’t have immunity because they can’t catch the virus and they can’t spread the virus.” And that’s going to be critical. Immune employees will be better suited to customer-facing roles because they have no risk of catching the virus.
Antibody tests don’t mean anything right now. They say whether you’ve been exposed, but they don’t say whether you have immunity. Most of them in the market are not even accurate. So we need to have an immunity test in this country.
The government is working on it every day for the last many weeks. And my gut is it will roll out in the next couple of weeks and be available across the country. And this will bring up some important questions. Are you going to identify employees who have immunity? Will there be green on one person’s phone and red on another’s; in order to denote those who are immune and those who are not?
Personal health + productivity + privacy
We also know this virus discriminates. People with diabetes, people who are obese, and people who have blood pressure issues are over 94% of the hospitalizations in New York City. And so in a sense, we have to figure out ways to protect these individuals. That is not to discriminate against them, but to empower them, and protect them. Israel, South Korea, and other countries are doing that. And it’s something we have to talk about here.
We have to do contact tracing. When an employee tests positive, I want to know who they interacted with. I want to know at business and at home because I can stop spreading the virus there. If I don’t do that, I don’t get aggressive about stopping the spread. And if I’m a business owner that means I’m putting myself at significant risk of potentially shutting down my whole company.
So the challenges are privacy versus productivity and personal health versus privacy — and they intersect, right? But if we can collectively shut down the spread of the virus, each individual will be more protected. So contact tracing really has implications for the individual and the corporation as a whole.
I think we have to change our attitude, honestly. All of us need to step up and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In the same way, we need to ensure boundaries are there: that you’re not discriminated against based on any existing healthcare condition, or healthcare piece of data. And I think this is all achievable. We can actually make each of the stakeholders happy, but it requires discourse and it requires normalizing a new idea, something we’re not all yet comfortable with.
While many questions still remain, we hopefully will soon have more immunity testing available. This can help to open offices and keep employees safer, but we also have to move into an area where we feel more comfortable sharing anonymous personal health information. It may be key to creating safer spaces.
Related: Learn why companies should consider a Chief Health Officer.