The Illusion of Safety


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President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and admission to the hospital with reportedly alarming symptoms put a spotlight on the White House’s testing practices and other precautionary measures. As we learn how far the infections have spread among the president’s inner circle, there are lessons for any business or organization bringing people back into the workplace.

Rapid testing can give a false sense of security. Antigen tests that provide results within minutes are important for detecting and tracing the virus, but they alone won’t stop its spread. Tests like the one from Abbott Labs used by the White House to routinely screen for infections are not foolproof and best suited for people already showing symptoms. It can take days for the viral load of an infected, contagious person to register on these tests. Molecular PCR tests are more accurate, but take longer to give results, which is why Mr. Trump’s diagnosis was not announced publicly until his first positive result with a rapid test was confirmed with a more reliable method.

• In short, a negative test by an employee before they go into the office doesn’t mean that person is in the clear. In fact, it could create an illusion of safety that leads people to ignore other precautions, like wearing masks and social distancing, that have been shown to slow the spread of the virus. This, it seems, was at least partly in play at the White House.

Nothing is perfect — and that’s OK. If constant testing at the White House was unable to protect the president from contracting the coronavirus, that doesn’t mean it’s useless. Even employing an array of imperfect measures can be effective at limiting potential outbreaks, writes Joshua Schiffer, an infectious diseases specialist, for Times Opinion: “The new coronavirus travels through populations too quickly and unpredictably for us to wait to tackle it until we have devised nearly flawless solutions.” That means testing plus masks, distancing, cleaning, symptom tracking, education and other measures.

More planning and preparation mean that positive tests don’t have to shut everything down, Caesar Djavaherian of Carbon Health explains to Reset Work. After all, few companies are able to impose an N.B.A.-style “bubble” that severely limits all outside contact; the real world is more like the N.F.L., which is currently dealing with clusters of infections — including as recently as this weekend — and adjusting its rules and schedules accordingly.

Transparency is also crucial. The White House’s shifting explanations of the timeline of Mr. Trump’s infection and lack of information for staff members in his orbit raise another issue of importance to any employer: Who needs to know about positive tests and when should they be notified? Information about the virus, and what an organization is doing about it, gives confidence and bolsters all the other measures taken. You may recall that we asked legal experts about this in a recent newsletter, and they suggested as much transparency as possible, while keeping privacy in mind.

We asked readers what you thought about disclosure of positive tests at the office, and your responses have been flooding in. A selection:

“Everyone has the right to know if they may have been exposed at work, no matter how remote a possible contact could be.” — Stella in Whidbey Island, Wash.

“I think the danger of contagion must override any concern about privacy. If that’s not legal, the law should be changed.” — Bill in Durham, N.C.

“If elevators are in use, the entire building should be informed. If shared eating places are used, the same goes. Those who do not want to reveal information should not be in a position of authority.” — Lynne in Honolulu

“American sensitivity to privacy is part of what is allowing this virus to be very successful in the U.S. Another option is to obtain the permission of the infected person to identify them. That would allow for a broader dissemination of the information.” — William in Red Bank, N.J.

“I guarantee the grapevine is doing more damage to performance than the virus, as word spreads and mutates regarding who’s infected and how serious it is. Communicate openly and often, even when there is nothing to report.” — Jeff in Calgary, Alberta

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Today’s DealBook Briefing was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Lauren Hirsch in New York, Ephrat Livni in Washington, and Michael J. de la Merced and Jason Karaian in London.

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Here’s a quick rundown of the major players and what they offer.

Covid-19 tests are made by companies like Abbott (which manufactured the rapid tests used at the White House), Cellex, OraSure and Roche. They’re administered by health care giants like Quest Diagnostics and OpKo Health (which oversees the N.F.L.’s testing), as well as smaller companies like SterlingCheck.

The government is also fast-tracking development of new types of tests via funds from the National Institutes of Health. The biggest awards to date include:

• $71 million for Quidel for test “analyzers” at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and nursing homes that offer results in 15 minutes.

• $41 million for MicroGEM, which makes a portable device that could collectively trace Covid-19 and the flu or other pathogens in as fast as 15 minutes.

• $40.5 million for Ginkgo Bioworks for its sequencing technology that processes tens of thousands of tests simultaneously, with results in one or two days.

A reminder about the different kinds of tests:

Antigen tests, based on those notoriously invasive nose and throat swabs, are the most common tests. But tests primed for rapid results can lead to false negatives. More in-depth molecular tests, which also use swabs, are accurate, but take more time.

Antibody tests were once pitched as ways to show whether a person has had Covid-19 and might have some immunity. But they’re now considered unreliable for that purpose and are better suited for wider population studies.

As for treatments, The Times has a an updated tracker of different drugs, medical devices and procedures being used to combat Covid-19, from the promising (remdesivir and steroids like dexamethasone, both of which have been administered to President Trump) to those with mixed results (artificial antibodies and blood plasma from those who have recovered) to the unpromising (hydroxychloroquine).

New York City will lock down 20 neighborhoods because of Covid-19. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced emergency shutdowns of schools and nonessential businesses in Brooklyn and Queens, with infection rates rising.

A top movie theater chain will close all of its venues in the U.S. and Britain. Cineworld, which owns Regal, is closing more than 600 theaters this week as blockbuster films like the latest James Bond and Marvel movies are delayed until next year. The move will lead to some 45,000 job losses.

Britain shouldn’t count on a widely available Covid-19 vaccine. The head of the U.K. coronavirus task force told The Financial Times that the government intends to vaccinate less than half of Britain’s population, mostly frontline workers and vulnerable adults over 50. The comments point to the difficulty of providing mass vaccinations, as governments race to stock up on treatments.

A preview of Facebook’s defense against a potential antitrust case. Documents prepared by outside lawyers argue that breaking up the tech giant would defy existing laws, cost billions and hurt consumers, The Wall Street Journal reported. But the presentation is light on legal citations, and some critics say the arguments are weak.

On deck this week: The vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris — if it still happens — is scheduled for Wednesday. Earnings reports include Levi Strauss on Tuesday, Tesco on Wednesday and Carnival, Delta Air Lines and Domino’s Pizza on Thursday. The Supreme Court hears arguments in a long-running copyright battle between Google and Oracle on Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that President Trump’s positive test for coronavirus “changes the dynamic of stimulus talks.” Does it?

The White House wants a deal. Mr. Trump tweeted from the hospital on Saturday that the country “wants and needs” more stimulus. For Mr. Trump, a deal would serve as a sign of his authority, taking attention away from his health and unfavorable polls.

Congressional leaders are still haggling. When asked whether Mr. Trump’s tweet meant the two parties were closer to a deal, Ms. Pelosi demurred: “No, it means that we want to see that they will agree on what we need to do to crush the virus so that we can open the economy and open our schools safely.” She said that the parties were “making progress” toward a deal, but with Mr. Biden ahead in the polls, Democrats may feel they have the upper hand in negotiations. On the Senate side, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is balancing competing interests among his Republican colleagues — some want a deal to bring home to constituents and others are worried about approving another large spending deal.

• Adding to the difficulties, the senate has delayed its next sitting until Oct. 19, to account for positive coronavirus tests among Republican members.

Jobs and the economy hang in the balance. The longer people are out of the work, the harder it is for them to come back, suggesting that we may be entering the slow, grinding phase of a recovery that may tip into recession. There are still about twice as many people out of work now than before the pandemic, and without aid akin to what was in the first stimulus bill, weaker consumer spending, missed rent payments and other factors could ripple through the economy and the financial system.

You may have noticed some new names on the newsletter recently. The DealBook team is growing, and our two newest members are Lauren Hirsch in New York and Ephrat Livni in Washington.

Lauren joined us from CNBC, where she broke news on some of the biggest retail bankruptcies in the past few years, including Toys “R” Us, J. Crew, J.C. Penney and Sears. Previously, she was an M.&A. team leader at Reuters, focusing on consumer and retail deals.

Ephrat joined us from Quartz, where she covered the Supreme Court, following many cases of interest to business, like the trademarking of domain names and the future of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Previously, she was a lawyer in public and private practice.

Follow Lauren and Ephrat on Twitter and send them your news, tips and gossip.

Deals

• Airbnb reportedly plans to raise about $3 billion in its coming I.P.O. (Reuters)

• Most executives at SoftBank — except for its founder, Masa Son — reportedly think that taking the company private is a bad idea. (Bloomberg)

SPAC corner

• A blank-check fund run by the investment banker Ken Moelis plans to raise $500 million. (Reuters)

• A SPAC by Emil Michael, a former top Uber executive who left amid scandals at the company, is seeking $250 million. (Reuters)

• Two educational tech companies, Global Knowledge Training and Skillsoft, are reportedly in talks to merge and then combine with Michael Klein’s Churchill Capital II to go public. (Bloomberg)

Politics and policy

• Big tech companies could feel the brunt of higher taxes proposed by Joe Biden. (WSJ)

Tech

• Benchmark’s Bill Gurley, one of Silicon Valley’s top investors, said tech stocks’ current run reminds him of the dot-com boom in 1999. (CNBC)

• A top software supplier for clinical trials, including those for Covid-19 treatments, was hit by a ransomware attack that locked employees out of their systems. (NYT)

Best of the rest

• States with low taxes don’t necessarily entice wealthy people to move from high-tax areas. (Bloomberg Opinion)

• Among the most-sought after goods in the pandemic: Clorox wipes and heat lamps for outdoor dining. (NYT, Bloomberg)

• As C.E.O. of Credit Suisse, Tidjane Thiam became one of the few Black men to lead a global financial institution, hired to shore up the struggling Swiss bank. But his fall from grace amid intense scrutiny gave him the feeling of, “You cleaned up the mess. Now leave.” (NYT)





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