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CDC guidance urges fewer health precautions than original plan

Original plan would urge businesses in areas with high COVID-19 caseloads to wait to reopen

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on March 12.
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on March 12. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House watered down Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance showing how businesses should protect employees from COVID-19, a comparison to an earlier draft shows, with changes including softening a recommendation to keep workers six feet apart.

The brief CDC guidance released Thursday night includes a flow chart for easy reference that maps the criteria businesses should meet before opening their doors during the pandemic.

“Encourage social distancing,” the guidance reads. It also recommends “limiting” access to common rooms and large gatherings. 

The original draft guidance, a far more comprehensive plan that was obtained by The Associated Press but not officially released, would have told employers to “ensure” rather than “encourage” social distancing. It also recommended businesses close communal spaces and large events altogether.

“It’s incredibly dangerous for workers and for the public. This guidance isn’t based in science but in political expediency,” said Debbie Berkowitz, the worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project.

The administration’s released information leaves it up to employers’ discretion whether “workers are going to work six feet from one another or work shoulder to shoulder,” she said.

Business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Restaurant Association did not respond to requests for comment on the guidance. 

The original version drafted by CDC scientists included several other more stringent requirements. 

The guidance was tweaked after an interagency review led by the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. The version published by AP includes a stamp that reads “awaiting OIRA comments.”

President Donald Trump praised the guidance in remarks to the press Friday afternoon.

“I thought the guidance was very good. I’ve heard very good reviews on the guidance,” Trump said in the Rose Garden.  

The earlier CDC guidance would have encouraged workplaces in areas with high case numbers “requiring significant mitigation” to hold off on resuming business. 

One of the first checkpoints a business should meet in the original version: “Is the workplace in an area no longer requiring significant mitigation? Or in an area with significant mitigation and providing essential, critical infrastructure?”

That bullet point doesn’t appear in the CDC’s final version. 

The CDC recommended in its original guidance that workplaces monitor cases and temporarily shutter if a workplace cluster emerges. Manufacturing plants, especially meat and poultry plants where meatpackers work in close proximity, have emerged as hotspots for the novel coronavirus.

“Be ready to close if there are increased cases,” the original CDC flowchart reads. 

Instead, the edited version states: “Be ready to consult with the local health authorities if there are cases in the facility or an increase in cases in the local area.” 

While the original CDC guidance recommended checking signs and symptoms of the virus among employees such as conducting temperature checks upon arrival to work — as the CDC already recommended for essential workers — the final guidance recommends this safety measure only “as feasible.”

The original CDC guidance recommends that businesses consider having a five-day supply of personal protective equipment such as surgical masks, N95 respirators and gloves on hand before states lift shelter-at-home orders. It recommends a 15-day supply of PPE as communities and businesses open up further. Those recommendations do not appear in the final version. 

The final CDC guidance also includes a limited flow chart for transit employees that differs from the CDC’s original version. The CDC originally recommended transit systems form a hazard plan to prevent exposure and stock up on PPE. Those benchmarks aren’t in the published chart. 

John A. Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest transit union in the United States, called the changes “shameful.” 

About 64 percent of the group’s members said in a poll released Thursday that they lacked the adequate protection to resume operations at full capacity, although the mitigation period was supposed to provide time for stocking up on PPE. About 43 union members have died of COVID-19, he said. 

“Meanwhile, members of the public are getting back on the buses,” Costa said. “There is no preventative plan. That endangers not only my members but also the public.”

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