Running on Empty: What should a Post-Pandemic World Look Like?

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A few weeks before the coronavirus started terrorizing our country, I walked into a local doctor’s office with my wife for a routine appointment. Neither one of us had any flu or cold-like symptoms – no coughing, sneezing, nausea, or fevers of any kind or to any degree. Allergy season hadn’t even hit yet.

While my wife checked in at the window, I couldn’t help but notice the box of disposable face masks hanging on the wall next to the receptionist’s window.

A sign beside the box asked those exhibiting contagious symptoms to take and use a mask while in the waiting room. Another sign on the window asked all patients to sanitize their hands before touching the glass. (This was before the giant bottle of Germ-X on the counter could draw a small fortune on eBay.)

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I chuckled a bit to myself.

What a joke. A thin paper mask distributed from a flimsy, communal paper box and a shared bottle of sanitizer had little chance of preventing infections, especially when each patient was crammed into a six-foot by ten-foot waiting area, forced to sit in chairs facing each other in convenient lines like dueling firing squads.

Five seconds later, a woman walked through the doors to stand behind my wife, waiting to check in. She looked like death warmed over, coughing and sniffling from a red face she tried in vain to cover with a tiny paper mask off the wall.

And then she sat two seats from me, both of us confined to our own little infection hell as we waited for the doctor.

I politely shifted a few seats down, mumbling a lame lie about looking at cars out the window, but it was no use. There was no way to hide from infected patients in a building designed to lure them in. Thirty minutes after the wheezing woman entered my small waiting room, I found myself waiting in an even smaller square room three floors down, chairs once again arranged to face each other with no ventilation, as I waited for my wife to get x-rays.

No fewer than five people came and went wearing face masks like scarlet letters upon their faces while I sat in my personalized contagion chamber.

This was weeks before most of us had even heard of a raging virus from China.

It was no use. Clearly doctors and hospitals felt no urgency to keep healthy people safe from sick patients.

As I look back now, stuck in my house for a multi-week, nation-wide quarantine, it occurs to me that the questions many of us are asking are long overdue.

What will life look like after this outbreak? How should things change now that we’ve had a taste of pandemic panic and paranoia?

I have a few thoughts.

1. Stop mixing sick patients with healthy patients in healthcare buildings. When I take my children to the pediatrician, the waiting room is divided into two sections. Those with symptoms are asked to sit in one half of the lobby, and those without are asked to sit in another. No curtain or wall separates the two sections. It’s just some 8 ½ by 11-inch signs printed by the office computer and Scotch-taped to walls in three or four locations. Come on. We always knew this wasn’t enough. Going forward, doctor’s offices, emergency rooms, and clinics should all be designed to prevent symptomatic patients from mingling with patients arriving for routine wellness check-ups, pain complaints, etc.

And while we’re at it, how about making better use of technology to limit the number of times patients actually need to visit an office anyway? Teledoc experiences (seeing a doctor via webcam) are becoming more and more common, but it’s still like pulling teeth to get my own doctor to prescribe antibiotics for routine infections without forcing me to practically hug three symptomatic flu patients on the way through her office door! And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to get an actual, qualified medical professional on the phone. Charge me, bill me, whatever – but talk to me! Instead of making me explain my symptoms to a twenty-something receptionist and hope she relays them correctly to a doctor sprinting between patient rooms, actually pick up the phone and listen to me from the self-sealed space of my own home for simple health issues.

Continuing to force all of us into tiny waiting rooms regardless of appointment type or symptoms is ludicrous. I can get at-home kits to get my annual blood test for the insurance company, but my own doctor makes me walk through the doors for a wellness check, or an ear infection any parent can easily identify. It’s just silly.

2. Stop pressuring kids to go to school with symptoms. A few years ago, our family took a trip to Disney World. Now, anyone who has gone to Disney knows that the best time to go is during the offseason, which happens to be during the American school year in the fall. So we booked our trip, touched base with all of my son’s teachers, collected his work for the week he would be gone, and left for Florida! When we got back, there was a letter from the school in the mailbox and the juvenile office was on the phone.

“Mr. Reynolds,” the stern feminine voice on the line said. “Your child has been absent from school for several days without notice.”

“What?” I said. “What do you mean without notice? All of his teachers know where he’s been. We even collected his work before leaving. Hell! If they bothered to look down the hall before this phone call, they’d see him sitting in class right now.”

“Oh, I apologize,” she said, suddenly softening. “Please disregard this call.”

You see, even though everyone in the school knew where we were – teachers had even joked with my son in the halls about hiding in his luggage so they could visit Mickey Mouse! – I had forgotten to send a simple note to the principal’s office.

Un. Real.

I won’t name the school district – we’re in a different, better one now – but it appropriately rhymes with Disfunction Junction. But even this year, after taking our children out of school for two days for a family trip to Kansas City, a day for an extracurricular activity, and a few days for fevers and whatnot, we still get a form letter informing us that just a few more absences will result in a mandatory referral to the truancy office.

It’s nuts.

This is why parents feel so pressured that they send their kids to school when they’re sick, constantly infecting other kids and leading to more absences.

Dear School Districts and the State of Missouri: Stop threatening good parents over what you deem “unexcused” absences. It only makes flu outbreaks worse. They are my children. I will decide when they should or should not stay home ill. Yes, there are extreme circumstances that warrant the state stepping in to make sure children are receiving an education, but it’s usually unnecessary. And your heavy-handed threats push parents to ship their children off to school when they should be kept away from others.

Use technology to let absent kids learn from home while they’re gone, or just relax and recognize that missing an extra day here and there won’t derail their entire educational experience, but back off. And if that means changing the rules so your state funds are not dependent on daily student attendance, then let’s do that together too.

3. Stop pressuring non-essential employees to come to work on-site. I work for a wonderful company that constantly reminds employees to stay home when sick. But not every employer is ruled by such common sense. We’re all learning now just how much can be done from home – and what can’t – but why didn’t we learn this earlier?

Because too many mid-level managers are clinging to the idea that they need to have physical access to employees to properly manage them. Instead of being project-focused, they feel compelled to keep “eyes on” their employees to make sure they’re working and focused every second of the day.

It’s just a flawed approach.

Employees in many walks of life do not need a supervisor looking over their literal shoulder to be productive. Stop treating them like they do.

Obviously, there are many jobs that don’t have this luxury, but the concept can still apply. In a post-pandemic world, it’s time to challenge our longstanding beliefs and assumptions about work. Get creative and look for ways to employ people without pressuring them to come on-site with a hyper-contagious virus.

In a word, change.

Clearly this is nowhere near an exhaustive or complete list of what could and should be different once this crisis has passed, but it’s a start. And if we want to avoid overreacting to every viral outbreak or shutting down the economy every time a bug gets off the leash, change needs to start somewhere.

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