In April 2003, a delegation of U.S. senators led by then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist arrived in Beijing and checked into a 700-room hotel.
The high-powered group of eight lawmakers didn’t need reservations, however — they were the only guests.
“It was a ghost town,” Frist said. “China is [typically] packed. … Everything was shut down. There were no bicycles on the streets, there were no cars on the streets, there were no people on the streets. … And that was a good thing; that’s what you want.”
That’s because the city’s population was largely quarantined. The lawmakers were visiting at the height of China’s SARS outbreak, an epidemic that eventually spread to more than two dozen countries and killed nearly 800 people before it was largely stamped out months later.
Frist’s encounter with SARS is one of several the Nashville doctor and businessman had with outbreaks during his 12-year career as a lawmaker that makes him uniquely qualified to address COVID-19, the flu-like disease better known as the coronavirus.
As the only physician in the Senate, Frist was inoculated and trained on how to administer the smallpox vaccine in the event of a terrorist attack in the wake of 9/11. He was Congress’ chief spokesperson during the 2001 anthrax attacks, and he privately counseled colleagues on anthrax testing and treatment decisions — prompting one Missouri Democrat to tell The Baltimore Sun she planned to write Frist a note “telling him just how reassuring he has been.”
For the past month, Frist has been using his expertise to reassure and educate listeners about COVID-19 through his “Second Opinion” podcast. The former Vanderbilt heart surgeon has been in regular contact with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since January, he said, sharing his experiences and contacts in China with the agency and receiving updates.
He hasn’t been alone. Other companies and business leaders inside Nashville’s massive health care industry have also been in contact with the CDC and federal government to offer their assistance, Frist said, including HealthStream Inc. and HCA Healthcare Inc.
“Compared to any other city in America, we have the greater reach for health services, and we touch more people,” Frist said. “Therefore, our role and responsibility is to be on the forefront of surveillance and early identification. That’s the most important thing any entity can do today, especially because we have no treatment.”
To that end, we spoke with Frist to get his advice on what every local executive and employee should keep in mind as COVID-19 spreads.
Identify your telehealth provider
Businesses that offer telehealth services as part of their health plan should make employees aware of who that provider is and encourage them to preregister as a user, said Frist (who is on the board at New York-based telemedicine firm TeleDoc).
“Registration is not hard, but like anything else … if you’re calling when you’re coughing, sick and feel bad, you don’t want to be fooling with that stuff,” Frist said.
Another advantage of telehealth is that patients can speak with a physician in a matter of minutes, Frist said, instead of sitting in a waiting room and possibly contracting COVID-19 or infecting others.
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Sick employees should stay home
Draft a companywide email stressing that any employee with flu-like symptoms should not come to work, Frist said, and send home employees who display those symptoms. COVID-19 spreads through droplets, with a range of about six feet. Keeping sick employees at home will help limit the virus’ spread.
If you or an employee must seek medical attention because of flu-like symptoms, call the hospital or urgent care clinic before you go, Frist said. Most health systems have developed protocols for an outbreak and will direct possible COVID-19 patients to a specific location to limit exposing other patients within the facility.
Develop a plan
Frist said every CEO should know the difference between social distancing and quarantine, and have a plan in place for both. Social distancing refers to an array of tactics, such as working remotely, to keep people from gathering in large crowds, which can slow the virus’ spread. Quarantine calls for isolating individuals who may have been exposed to a virus but aren’t yet sick.
If public officials call for either scenario, executives should have a plan for instructing employees how to proceed with work from home, if able, with the best options for communication.
“Think through how your teams can work from home seamlessly,” Frist said. “If I call you tomorrow and tell you we can’t come into work for social-distancing reasons — there is an outbreak in the neighborhood, or something — how are we still going to work from home as a team?”
Companies should consider forgoing unnecessary travel, Frist said, and even necessary travel if it’s to a high-risk area, as defined by the CDC.
Everything will be OK
Outbreaks have happened before, and in a world where transportation is becoming more comprehensive, they will happen again, Frist said. That’s why his best advice is to stay calm.
“Having personally been through anthrax, a scare with smallpox, a ricin assault on the Capitol and personally with SARS: What’s important is calmness and accurate information,” Frist said. “If we do that and follow what science tells us, we’re going to be fine.”