One day, millions of people in the United States will have recovered from Covid-19. The best evidence suggests that they cannot be infected again soon and that they will not infect others by eliminating the virus.
This suggests a way to manage essential services more securely and to reopen sectors of the economy more quickly than would otherwise be possible. New York, Washington, California and other busy states should rush to put in place credible, verifiable and voluntary programs to identify individuals as “certified recovered” from Covid-19. German researchers recently proposed a similar program there.
Federal policymakers are currently pulled in two directions. One is to shut down much of the economy and house people to limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. But we are all shrinking from the economic and human devastation it creates, so Congress adopted a $ 2 trillion stimulus package aimed primarily at keeping the economy open and stimulating demand. However, demand is difficult to stimulate when so many things are closed, and it is dangerous to stimulate in a way that increases social contact and spreads the virus.
Creating a path for recovered Covid-19 certified companies reduces the tension between reviving the economy and letting the virus spread.
Certification could start with building on existing hospital tests and records, starting with people who already had a positive test and corresponding symptoms. Now that the rapid antibody and virus tests are approved by the FDA, new tests will speed up. If certification overlaps with such tests, the United States could create a new, substantial and vital specialized workforce of certified retrievers in the short term.
Although no one knows with absolute certainty whether people with antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can be reinfected by it, immunity to the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has lasted two years. For SARS-CoV-2, monkeys infected with SARS-CoV-2 are known to have developed immunity. And according to Martin Hibberd, an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, people who have recovered “are not at risk of being re-infected with SARS-CoV-2”.
These first indications justify starting now to build a certification system. We urgently need to get as many people back to work as possible.
Certified returnees could take up front-line contact positions in medicine and retail to make operations safer. They could work with the elderly and vulnerable. The certified retrievers could also work in food preparation. A service that prepares and delivers food only with retrieved people would be very popular. Buses on trips to hospitals could be driven by recovered drivers. The possibilities abound as confidence is rebuilt. The simple fact of knowing that more and more people have defeated the virus and are back at work would be a huge boost for confidence.
Health conditions are, of course, a private matter and no one should be forced to become certified. That said, the demand for individuals to be voluntarily tested and certified could be intense.
The program would be ideal if it allowed undocumented workers to participate without fear or risk. It was cruel to leave them out of stimulus support. It was also unwise from a public health standpoint, as undocumented families will be forced to join an underground economy and work in defiance of local shelter ordinances on site, endangering everyone.
One of the concerns is that uninfected people could be discriminated against in certain jobs once a system for verifying certified retrievers is created. However, recently reissued guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggest that the commission considers such discrimination to be acceptable. If immunity is important for safe work, then giving preference to those who are certified as recovered is warranted, especially in our current emergency. Ensuring that more people work safely is paramount.
The rapid creation of a certification system could accelerate economic recovery while slowing the virus. And maybe the recovered certificate, after working all day for the rest of us, could safely enjoy the night.
Aaron Edlin is a visiting researcher at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics and a professor of economics and law at UC Berkeley. Bryce Nesbitt is co-founder of NextBus, a public transit information company.