May 4, 2020

Wayne State researchers complete analysis on testing and reopening under COVID-19

Governors across the United States are anxious to reopen their struggling economies. However, because COVID-19 has not disappeared, testing remains limited and a vaccine is at least months away, reopening remains a difficult feat.

A team of Wayne State University researchers led by Shooshan Danagoulian, Ph.D., assistant professor of Economics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has completed an analysis that studied specific industry characteristics as alternatives to guide industry openings in a way that lowers contagion risks and

Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H.

maximizes economic benefits until broader testing becomes available and the efficacy and reliability of immunity testing is achieved. The scope for physical distancing and remote work will vary by industry and region. The team’s study focused on Michigan and metropolitan Detroit, a hot spot for COVID-19.

“With protective gear and testing still in limited supply, there is a need to find the safest way to open and operate businesses to avoid a resurgence of the virus,” said Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Emergency Medicine, assistant vice president of Translational Science and Clinical Research Innovation at Wayne State University, and chief innovation officer for the Wayne State University Physician Group. “It is critical that we look at alternatives to lower contagion risks and maximize economic benefits. Using specific industry characteristics to guide industries in their reopening efforts will be key to lowering the further spread of the virus.”

Dr. Danagoulian and Dr. Levy, along with Zhe Zhu, Ph.D., assistant professor of Economics in Wayne State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, discussed a number of critical factors in their paper, “Prioritizing Testing and Workplace Re-opening Under COVID-19,” which appeared in Econofact on April 29. Some of these points include:

• As further understanding of the virus and the human response to infection is developed, immunity testing could be combined with effective use of personal protective equipment and physical distancing to minimize the spread of the virus. By doing so, a more nuanced approach to social distancing can be achieved, enabling earlier implementation of mechanisms to restart production and jump-start the economy.

• Some occupations and industries are better able to operate with effective physical distancing. The proximity index recently developed by St. Louis Federal Reserve indicates the physical distance from other people involved in carrying out work by occupation. Some essential occupations do not allow for physical distancing (e.g. health care workers, first responders) while innovation enables other workers who traditionally have close physical contact to work remotely (e.g. telemedicine, professional services).

• Low-proximity industries — those that allow for physical distancing — tend to interact predominantly with other low-proximity industries, reducing the economy-wide footprint of viral spread. Estimates from the team’s findings suggest that although low-proximity industries are not isolated, their operation is largely interdependent on other low-proximity industries. Targeted testing and reopening in these industries are viable options. 

• Some occupations can accommodate working from home, while others cannot. The auto industry, which employs more than 188,000 workers in Michigan, is operating at 17% capacity. Workers in design and engineering can work remotely, but production workers cannot. It is possible, however, to maintain physical distancing on the factory floor.

• Widespread furlough and layoffs could have a devastating effect on the local economy. Layoffs in the automotive industry alone would result in a $495 million monthly loss in personal income. This will have a widespread impact on taxes and other entities, such as local food pantries and social services.

In addition, the research team stated that immunity testing of workers in targeted low-proximity industries with low capacity to work remotely could eventually be an efficient and practical use of a limited resource. A potential winter recurrence of COVID-19 may also necessitate industry prioritization plans to help reduce economic fallout of future social distancing measures.

“Immunity testing has the potential to become an important strategy to reopening selective industries that have a lower risk to spreading the virus,” Dr. Levy said. “They could contribute significantly to restarting the economic engine, which will be critical to all of our lives.”