David Michaels: 'New Paradigm of Clean Indoor Air' Needed to Mitigate Coronavirus Spread

01 Feb, 2022 Nancy Grover


Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Employers looking to bring workers back should get a carbon dioxide monitor. It’s a way to address the fear of COVID-19 that’s keeping many people out of the workforce.

“It’s estimated there are 3.2 million workers who left the workforce because they are afraid of getting COVID-19 or spreading COVID-19,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “You can get a very inexpensive carbon dioxide monitor, which is essentially monitoring what people are breathing out. And if you can show you’ve got enough airflow – through either filtration or outside air coming in – that you’re keeping carbon dioxide levels low, you can show you’ve made that workplace safer. And that’s what you want to be doing.”

Michaels, who served for eight years as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, was among a panel of experts who predicted the pandemic may likely become endemic later this year. They outlined what that means, what organizations can likely expect and ways employers can mitigate some of the negative effects of the virus.


We are likely to see a change in COVID-19 later this year. Experts predict the virus may go from a pandemic to endemic in about six months. Rather than 2,000 deaths per day, the rate will fall.

“It will still be there, it’s not going to be eradicated, it will still kill us but deaths per day will come down to about 50 to 100 a day – which is influenza-level of death. And then it will sort of percolate along,” said Nicholas Christakis, a Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Sciences at Yale University. “This assumes that there isn’t the emergence of a new worrisome strain.”

But the ‘good’ news about the likely future of COVID-19 should be taken in context for what it is. Other diseases, such as malaria, for example, are endemic conditions and kill many people. “It Just means [the death rate] won’t go up and down,” Michaels said. “Once we get to that endemic stage we need to have protections in place.”

What’s important to realize, the speakers said, is that the change from a pandemic to endemic doesn’t mean life will go back to pre-COVID-19 ‘normal.’ Pandemics throughout history have incurred risk. The world has been forever changed. Experts say it’s akin to radioactive fallout – it’s everywhere and can’t be escaped. It will take everyone doing their part to get through it – and understanding we have to tolerate more risk.

“So the fantasy that you’ll be able to resume your previous life quickly and without consequences or move through life without any risk is just that, it’s a fantasy,” Christakis, said. “Many workers and people think ‘the government should fix this for me’ or ‘my employer should fix this for me; my employer should make the workplace safe.’  There’s no practical way an employer can eliminate all risk in this type of a situation.” 

Advice for Employers

Employees are increasingly saying they want a voice in their working conditions, to feel safe as well as to have more of a work-life balance. Savvy employers hoping to retain talent will listen.

“There are plenty of employers who recognize the value of their employees and know they’re going to have to make some different sorts of accommodations,” said Michaels. He noted the steps United Airlines took in requiring its employees to be vaccinated, which the airline’s CEO said eliminated the one employee death per week the company was seeing. “Employers can say, ‘we know we’re in a different world now, we’re going to have to treat people differently, we’re going to have to think about what we need to do to make sure we have a workforce that wants to participate in this work.’ It’s doable. It’s a challenge and that’s what we’re talking about now. But if you don’t do that I think it will be a real setback. You’re not going to be able to run those facilities the same way you did in the past.”

One suggestion for employers concerns the wearing of respirators for employees working in close quarters. While surgical and cloth masks help prevent the virus from being transmitted from the wearer to another person, respirators help protect the wearer as well as others. The N-95 and KN-95 are examples of respirators. OSHA has required employers to meet the requirements of a specific standard before mandating that workers wear respirators.

“That now has changed,” Michaels said. “OSHA tells me they will continue to treat this as a new enforcement policy. You can now require workers to wear [respirators] if they would not normally be in a respiratory protection program. In other words, not someone who is exposed to asbestos or silica or something like that.”

Employers do not need to adhere to the strict protocols of the OSHA respiratory protection standard.

“You’ve got to show people how they work and you’ve got to essentially show them it seals well so they are not breathing out the side. That’s a big difference ight now and that’s something I hope a lot of employers will do because it’s clear, and the CDC has come around om this, that you have to be using an N-95 or KN-95 to really stop the spread in workplaces and it is really effective.”

Long-Term Strategies

Some estimates are that nearly half the population of the U.S. will be infected by the Omicron variant before it is gone. Whether that helps protect us from other strains is a big question.

“We have to be prepared for that. There’s no question, we will have variants,” Michaels said. “In the long run, from an evolutionary perspective, this will become like the common cold or something like that; but in the very long run we’re all dead. We need to be prepared for the next 5 years, and the next 10 years.”

Michaels said the focus should be on air systems. He likens it to changes made in the nation’s water system.

“You turn on the tap and get clean water and you don’t worry about cholera. And we have this other system that removes dirty water from sinks and toilets and showers. We don’t think about it until it breaks down,” Michaels said. “We need to think about the air that way because if it’s not this pandemic it will be the next one.”

Ensuring buildings have clean air flow should become a major focus to deal with COVID-19. Masks, while an effective short-term strategy to help prevent transmission of the virus is not the answer. Bringing in fresh air is also not a viable solution for all areas, such as those in which wildfires are often present.

“So we really need a new paradigm of clean indoor air,” Michaels said. I think that’s what we’ll have to be thinking about. Studies show if we improve indoor air we get better cognition, we have academics with more success, less absenteeism. It’ll turn out to be really worthwhile to do.”

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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for WorkersCompensation.com. She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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