Getting workers back to work across the Wiregrass region amid the coronavirus pandemic has been a critical task and priority over the past couple of months. As a manufacturer and health care system with strong roots in the region, we have seen how much our employees and patients, and more broadly our communities, have suffered from COVID-19. We understand the importance of getting back to work so we can keep our businesses and our communities moving forward.
Moving forward doesn’t always mean moving fast, however. Right now, we need to focus on moving with purpose. This means remaining vigilant away from work just as we are while at work. We implore our friends, neighbors and co-workers to take seriously the recommended precautions for protecting themselves and others against this unprecedented disease.
At the height of the lockdown, Michelin idled its Dothan facility and sidelined close to 500 workers who call the Wiregrass home. We weren’t alone. Our state’s unemployment rate increased from 3.5% in March to 13.8% in April as businesses closed down to contain the virus. Clearly, this was an unsustainable trend that would have led to economic calamity for our people and state had it continued.
While we acknowledge it is important to get back to work, it is equally important that we stay at work. This will be harder to do if the disturbing COVID-19 trends in our state and region continue.
On April 30, when Gov. Kay Ivey lifted portions of the statewide “safer-at-home” order to reopen parts of the economy, our state had 6,750 total cumulative cases, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine website. This week, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported close to 55,000 cumulative cases, and the number of hospitalized patients reached an all-time high of 1,335.
Again, a figure that is not sustainable.
Dr. Charles Harkness, Southeast Health’s chief medical officer, has especially voiced fears for marked increases during the summer months, warning it could further strain our hospitals and health care workers. He has urged everyone to respect the state of emergency our governor has extended and treat COVID-19 as an ongoing and evolving public health threat.
This doesn’t have to be the future. As individuals and as companies, we have the collective power to prevent a second wave of the disease from crashing over our economy. While we can’t prevent everyone from contracting COVID-19, we can work together to halt and reverse the trend of rising new cases.
We encourage business and community leaders to consider taking additional steps to keep our communities safe including emergency ordinaces to require masks.
If we don’t take steps like these, it is likely the region and state’s manufacturers — which account for 17% of the total economic output of the state — and other businesses will once again be forced to react. A second shutdown would have dramatically negative consequences on our economy, not to mention the lives and livelihoods of our employees, neighbors, colleagues and families.
Michelin has instituted policies to prevent outbreaks. We are reviewing and optimizing our ventilation systems, enhancing our cleaning practices and equipping cleaning crews with CDC-approved equipment. We have modified our office and shared spaces to promote social distancing and required face masks be worn when people can’t maintain recommended distance.
We now need everyone to act with us. Southeast Health and others in the medical community have repeatedly reinforced that the actions of individuals do make a difference. Social distancing does matter and can only be effective if implemented consistently. Wearing a mask is not a political statement; it’s a common-sense response to the virus that prevents its spread. It is saying to your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers that you care about them enough to do what you can to protect them. Dr. Harkness reminds us that the mask has a dual role to protect the wearer and others in close proximity.
COVID-19 is a unique crisis, but we are only at its mercy if we are complacent about it. We urge you to respect the state of emergency and the damage this terrible virus can inflict. Doing your part can keep our state, businesses and families healthy, while honoring the first responders, hospital workers and medical personnel who have worked tirelessly to save lives. We are immensely grateful to them and to all those who have returned to work. Now we need to make sure we keep them at work.
Felicia Sanders is manager of Michelin
North America Dothan Manufacturing Plant.
Dr. Charles Harkness is vice president of
medical affairs and chief medical officer
for Southeast Health.
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