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In Boston, ‘Construction Stops COVID’

Martin J. Walsh, Boston mayor and Joe Biden’s pick to head the U.S. Dept. of Labor, says his city has just instituted the “highest safety standards in the nation.”

BOSTON, Mass.—Boston’s building trades unions, joining with three construction companies and two public-health organizations, have launched a program to stem the spread of COVID-19 that they say is the first of its kind in the nation.

The “Construction Stops COVID” initiative is setting up “testing hubs” near job sites in Boston and Cambridge, coupled with an “industry-specific education campaign,” Brian Doherty, general agent of the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions,  announced on Dec. 22. The other partners include the John Moriarty and Associates, Suffolk Construction, and Turner Construction companies; the international health nonprofit Partners In Health; and Harbor Health Services, a local nonprofit public health agency. Harbor Health will handle testing and follow-up.

With the worst period of the pandemic likely coming this winter, Boston Mayor and soon-to-be-Labor Department Secretary Martin J. Walsh said, the initiative will “put a smart plan in place so people could return to work safely” and set the “highest safety standards in the nation.”

Construction is not work that can be done remotely, and many tasks require people to work less than six feet apart, noted Suffolk executive vice president Jeff Gouveia. The major union-labor companies in the Boston area began putting a plan together with the unions nine months ago, when the epidemic hit, said Chris Brown, CEO of John Moriarty and Associates, but over the last four to five weeks, they realized they needed to do something more to combat the virus’s latest surge. The Construction Stops COVID initiative will include fast testing, tracing, and treatment, with testing likely to start soonest, said Maureen Kirkpatrick, a vice president and operations manager at Turner.

Nonprofit public-health organizations are the other leg of the triad. They realized in talking to Boston’s building-trades unions that testing wasn’t readily accessible for a lot of people, said Dr. Claire-Cecile Pierre of Harbor Health.

Harbor Health grew out of the 1960s community-health movement, whose philosophy is that health is not just about access to care, but about having a healthy family and community, Dr. Pierre said. It runs the oldest such clinic in the U.S., the Geiger Gibson Community Health Center in the Columbia Point neighborhood, which opened in 1965.

The Boston Building Trades have also had a long relationship with Partners in Health, said CEO Sheila Davis. The Boston-based nonprofit works with national governments to provide care and strengthen public health systems in countries from Lesotho to Kazakhstan, and union electricians and carpenters traveled to Haiti to help build a hospital after the calamitous 2010 earthquake. 

Testing is critical to stem the epidemic, said Dr. Margaret Bourdeaux, research director of Harvard Medical School’s Global Public Policy program: “You can’t help people if you don’t know who’s infected and where the virus is spreading.”

“How do we ensure that everyone can get tested and that infection control is on the minds of everyone?” asked Dr. Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners in Health.

Both said successfully controlling the virus will have three components: Personal protective equipment and behavior such as wearing masks, washing, and social distancing; environmental controls at work, such as ventilation and setting up jobs to keep people apart; and a coherent administrative system for contact tracing and logistics. The Construction Stops COVID initiative will also help with the logistics of vaccine distribution and equity, Dr. Bourdeaux said.

“Most epidemics are stopped through public-health measures,” she added. Health providers, she said, need to set up tracing and treatment “as if there was no vaccine,” and individuals need to “think differently about what our health means to other people.”

That means it’s a dangerous idea to try to tough it out by working when you’re sick, she advised. “Nobody can muscle through COVID.”

“How do we make it feasible for people to stay home?” Dr. Mukherjee asked. People infected with COVID-19 typically have 5-14 days where they’re not showing symptoms but can still transmit the virus, especially to someone they live with, she noted.

Dr. Pierre added that follow-up care, such as having a nurse call people who’ve tested positive to ask how they’re doing, is crucial. 

Some people get really sick really fast, she warned. “This disease can rapidly get fatal.”

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