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Michigan manufacturing is ready to re-open. How safe will workers be?

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Some Michigan manufacturing businesses will re-open for production starting Monday. That opens up a whole new set of places where people could potentially become infected with COVID-19.

Some manufacturers have detailed plans for protecting workers. But they’re largely missing one key safeguard: testing.

A “Smart Start” playbook

Governor Gretchen Whitmer decided last week to let manufacturing re-open on Monday. But she also urged caution.

“One worker carrying this virus can infect 20 more, who can infect thousands more. We must stay smart,” Whitmer said.

Behind the scenes, many in the auto industry have been preparing for weeks.

Magna International is one of the largest auto suppliers in North America. It’s a global company, but has 24 facilities in Michigan alone, with around 9,000 employees.

Eric Wilds, Magna’s chief sales and marketing officer, said the company has a detailed plan to protect worker safety. It starts with the minimum health and safety standards dictated by local governments.

“That's our baseline,” Wilds said. “And then from there we apply our book to basically fill in the gaps.”

Wilds says Magna’s Smart Start Playbook is thorough, and the company is prepared.

“We have masks in all of our locations. For temperatures, we have temperature reading devices that we purchased centrally and distributed to all of our locations,” Wilds said. “We have different requirements for what you have to do for social distancing.”

Wilds said that if a worker does have COVID-19, or suspects they have it, the plan has protocols for tracing and quarantining other workers who may have been exposed. “We’re going to kind of work to quarantine that whole area and the different individuals, and make sure that we've provided the right protections to avoid any further spreading,” he said.

But the playbook stops short of broadly testing employees for the virus.

“We require testing if they have certain symptoms. But we're not doing something where we're going through testing all of our employees at this point from a screening process,” Wilds said.

Testing still lags

Magna’s decision reflects a stark reality: Michigan is partially re-opening its economy without anywhere near the level of testing public health experts say is needed to keep COVID-19 under control.

“The truth of the matter is we are not going to test at the scale that we would need to anticipate outbreaks,” said Wallace Hopp, C.K. Prahalad distinguished university professor of business and engineering at the University of Michigan.

Hopp said COVID-19 testing so far has targeted the highest-risk and most seriously symptomatic people. That doesn’t tell us much about how many people really have the virus, including those who may be totally asymptomatic.

Widespread, repeated testing would tell us a lot more. But we’re not doing that because of issues with the testing supply chain. There’s an ongoing shortage of basic supplies, and only so much lab capacity to process the tests.

“It’s useful if you do it on a repeated and massive scale, which we are clearly not ready to do,” Hopp said.

Hopp is a professor and a small business owner. His family runs a bakery in Lake Orion. He said that as an employer, it would be helpful to test people with very mild symptoms.

Credit University of Michigan
University of Michigan Professor Wallace Hopp.

“Tests for people like that I think would put people's minds at ease. And also just make it a lot easier for people to make the call of if and when to come back to work,” he said.

The state has recently allowed more people with milder symptoms to get tested. And some places, like the drive-thru testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit, will test frontline workersregardless of symptoms.

But the highest-risk remain the top priority.

“We're working diligently to work towards the state's goal of 15,000 tests per day, and targeting those for testing who are at highest risk,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said last week.

But some public health experts think that 15,000 per day targetisn’t nearly high enough for the state to fully re-open.

And U of M’s Wallace Hopp said employers also face a big psychological challenge: making enough employees feel secure enough to return to work. He said many employers may have to determine the “critical mass” of employees they need to operate.

“And they may struggle getting them in place, either with people actually being sick and staying at home for valid health concerns, or people who are just still concerned,” Hopp said.

Safety protocols like Magna’s Smart Start playbook can help with that. But Hopp said re-opening will present other challenges too.

In the auto industry, global supply chains have been severely disrupted. And then there’s the question of whether consumers will have enough confidence — not to mention enough money — to buy their products anytime soon.

“So it's a challenge. And I think it's going to be a herky-jerky reopening,” Hopp said.

The question is whether that herky-jerky process will be one manufacturers can navigate without a lot more people getting sick.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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