Health and Healthcare Systems

What schools and businesses should consider before reopening: WHO COVID-19 briefing

Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme and Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attend a news conference on the coronavirus (COVID-2019) in Geneva, Switzerland February 24, 2020.

Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Linda Lacina
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COVID-19

  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing on 11 May to update the public on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
  • The WHO released additional guidelines Sunday to help decision makers consider how and when to reopen schools and non-essential businesses.

As countries continue to lift lockdowns, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidance for decision makers on how schools and workplaces can be reopened safely.

“We need to get our priorities right as we enter the next phase of this fight,” Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said at a briefing in Geneva on Monday.

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Schools
Officials looking to open or close schools must weigh a clear understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted and its severity in children; COVID-19's spread where the school is located; and the ability to maintain COVID-19 prevention and control measures within that school's setting, the WHO said.

Decision makers might also consider if there are ways to set up classrooms to keep children physically separate during certain times of the day such as playtime or lunchtime, said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead.

Other factors can’t be discounted in the decision to reopen schools, said the WHO, including children’s access to meals, educational disparities and the need to reduce burdens on parents who are essential healthcare workers.

Vigilance is all the more important, said WHO officials, since much is still unknown about how COVID-19 impacts children and its actual infection rate in that cohort.

Workplaces

For workplaces, the WHO says leaders should carry out risk assessments to understand workers’ potential exposure to the virus and plan reopenings accordingly.

Additionally, the WHO recommends workplaces develop action plans that complement their existing business continuity plans. These action plans should include guidance for re-opening, closing and modifying work settings, while also outlining measures to help prevent or mitigate the virus’ spread.

Such plans should be created in consultation with workers and their representatives, and steps should be taken to ensure that all measures are widely and clearly communicated, the WHO said.

Seizing a second chance
WHO officials urged communities to maintain discipline as they ease restrictions. “We have a second chance now as a society to put in place the necessary public health interventions, to put in place the necessary community supports,” said Ryan.

Some countries, such as South Korea and China, recently saw new cases emerge in areas where the virus had been suppressed. These countries were in a position to react quickly to these new infections, as they had maintained comprehensive efforts to detect and trace new cases.

That sort of discipline will be essential moving forward, said Ryan. “Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I've seen.”

“We have a long way to go with this virus,” added Ryan. “Having said that, we have the tools in our tool box to be able to prevent this virus [from] taking off again.”

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