Medical ‘paratroopers’ swoop in for workplace testing

Plus: Mecklenburg parks open parking lots; Gaston defies Cooper (but not really); 1/2 of N.C. Covid-19 deaths are at elder care facilities; What's the etiquette at a Zoom wedding?

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Tryon Medical Partners deploys teams around the country to keep businesses open; IKEA ‘go bag’ with N95 masks

Dr. Jennifer Womack of Tryon Medical Partners, seen here at a testing facility in Charlotte, leads a team of healthcare workers that deploys to workplaces around the country to test for the coronavirus. She ordinarily works at the practice’s uptown office.

by Tony Mecia

Dr. Jennifer Womack has a “go bag” at her house. It’s an IKEA duffel bag stuffed with medical gowns, N95 masks, nasal swabs and other testing equipment.

Womack, an internist who moved to Charlotte in 2014, is the leader of Team 1, a group of four healthcare workers with Tryon Medical Partners who stand ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to administer dozens of Covid-19 tests at once at workplaces around the country. Tryon has quietly assembled about a dozen of these teams.

This is the future of the workplace battle against the coronavirus: Administer widespread testing, and keep those who test positive quarantined at home. Most of the country isn’t close to getting there yet because tests are not widely available. But Tryon says it has managed to get ahold of plenty of kits, and its teams are conducting tests for companies eager to protect themselves against outbreaks.

Nowadays, the more common approach is that a worker complains of symptoms, falls ill and tests positive, and the company cleans its facility and hopes the virus hasn’t spread. If it has spread to other workers, companies routinely close their facilities, like the meat-processing plants that are leading to a nationwide shortage of chicken and pork. Widespread testing, on the other hand, can identify workers who are carrying and possibly spreading the virus but who aren’t showing symptoms.

‘Happy as clams’: Companies whose workers are tested “are happy as clams to have discovered those folks and gotten them out of there,” says Dr. Dale Owen, a cardiologist who serves as Tryon’s CEO.

Critical to the effort, Owen says, are the rapid-deployment medical-testing teams like the one headed by Dr. Womack: “It is done with surgical precision. It’s like a group of paratroopers going in and getting in and getting out.”

Womack agrees her team moves quickly. Last week, she got a call around noon and shipped out the next morning at 6:30. But she says she finds the paratrooper reference “a little bit dramatic”: “I would not compare myself to a paratrooper.”

On the move: When The Ledger talked to her on the phone this week, Womack was in an undisclosed Midwestern city and had just finished testing workers. (Tryon declined to name its clients, other than saying they are of all sizes and have included companies “critical to the foundation of the country.”) That afternoon, she was headed to a rural area in the South.

Team 1 consists of Womack, two nurses and a patient-care coordinator who handles some of the clerical work. Womack, wearing protective gear, administers the tests herself, usually outside. She sticks a swab way up a worker’s nose, which “feels like you got pricked in the brain,” she says.

Some workplaces are tested only once, while others are tested weekly or every two weeks. Tryon started developing the program in early April. Few companies offer similar services, though many think tanks have written papers saying widespread workplace testing is essential to helping combat the virus. Asked about pricing, Tryon said it varies based on the needs of the clients.

Temperature checks: Some companies that aren’t doing comprehensive testing like Tryon’s are taking other measures, such as checking temperatures of workers when they come to work. This week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers have the right to test workers for the coronavirus. Workers who Tryon tests for the virus sign medical release forms so that results can be shared with employers.

Tryon has found a way to implement widespread testing for a number of clients as the state of North Carolina is still working to implement similar tactics. At a news conference this week, asked about increased testing, Gov. Roy Cooper said:

We want to get our testing up to the point where we can go in and test at job sites where an employee has tested positive, to go in and test everybody. We want to be able to go in and test everyone at a nursing home where there’s an outbreak there and we want to increase testing all around.

This month, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced a 12-member “testing surge workgroup,” the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Womack, who usually works in Tryon’s uptown office, says the workers she tests seem appreciative of efforts to identify sick coworkers: “Most are very grateful that their employer is providing this service so they can continue to work.”

It’s also a change of pace for Womack, who went to medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University and finished her residency at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center.

“Doing this has been an experience I never thought I would have,” she said. “It’s a different way of giving back to our community.”

You are now free to drive to a county park

A day after loosening some restrictions on some retail businesses, Mecklenburg County on Wednesday said it would reopen the parking lots at county parks starting today.

The move makes the parks more accessible to everybody. On April 7, the county closed the parking lots at parks, greenways and boat ramps because it said it worried that some were becoming too overcrowded to allow social distancing. It also closed the lots of parks that were not all that crowded in the name of consistency.

In a statement Wednesday, the county said:

Effective April 30, parking lots for parks, greenways, and nature preserves will reopen for vehicles, instead of simply walk-in and bicycle access. In addition, boat ramps at Ramsey Creek, Blythe Landing and Copperhead Island will reopen.

Tennis will also be allowed in County parks that follow safety rules and restrictions provided by the United States Tennis Association.

It said park visitors are expected to maintain social distancing of at least six feet apart and not congregate in groups of more than 10. Restrooms and playgrounds will stay closed, and sports including basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball and soccer remain forbidden.

Weather this weekend is expected to be sunny and warm. If you’re heading to a park, expect to see a fair share of sweaty, shirtless joggers.

Gaston County’s defiant ‘reopening’

Gaston County has always had a rebellious streak, and it was on full display on Wednesday, when the chairman of its board of commissioners announced he was signing an order that businesses were free to reopen at 5 p.m. — even though the state order keeping many businesses shut runs though at least May 8.

From chairman Tracy Philbeck:

But … then Philbeck’s order turned out to be even less clear-cut. Gaston County Police said they’d continue enforcing the state’s “stay at home” order, and Philbeck himself told The Gaston Gazette that his “order” had no power:

Philbeck said Wednesday afternoon the order and the messaging around it was designed to be transparent.

“The order signed by Gaston County today is the county’s plan to reopen,” Philbeck said. “That is our order, that we are ready to put people back to work but we cannot legally tell them that they can go back to work, until the governor’s order expires.”

No responsible business owner is going to open in defiance of the state order. Plaintiffs’ lawyers would salivate over the possibilities there. That doesn’t mean somebody won’t try. (This is Gaston County we’re talking about.)

The Ledger called a few closed Gaston businesses on Wednesday. Not one said it planned to open. — TM, DG

So what’s the etiquette at a virtual wedding?

The coronavirus postponed or cancelled many couples’ wedding plans, but some are going ahead with their nuptials via a less conventional route: the Zoom wedding.

Online video platforms like Zoom have become the go-to way to gather virtually since the coronavirus pandemic, and for an engaged couple, they present an opportunity to keep a wedding date and let loved ones be part of it.

But what’s it like to be a guest at a virtual wedding? Do the same customs and formalities we’re used to still apply?

We checked in with Charlotte-based and nationally recognized etiquette expert Aimee Symington of Finesse Worldwide Inc. for her tips on the do’s and don’ts of Zoom weddings.

Yes, you still need to send invitations: It’s up to the bride and groom to make their wedding an accessible, welcoming event. This means a guest should still expect a formal invitation in the mail, with detailed instructions on how to log in, especially for those who may be less tech-savvy.

And the couple should look for ways to incorporate close family members or friends into the ceremony, if possible.

“Whatever the bride and groom could do to make close family feel like they’re a part of the wedding” is important, Symington said.

Guests, test your software — and find the “mute” button: Guests have it easier than the bride and groom, but that doesn’t mean they should view the invitation as any less of an honor than if they were asked to be physically present.

Symington suggests testing the software the hosts are using well in advance to make sure there are no difficulties when it’s time for the real thing.

“They should definitely make sure … their mic is muted,” Symington said. “They are still showing respect to the bride and groom, even virtually, by being there, being present, but also not making it a spectacle or making it about them.”

Show respect — and wear something nice up-top: Guests should do what they can to show excitement but also need to keep in mind this is a formal, significant event.

The dress code for a Zoom wedding is less stringent, especially given that guests only have their top half on display. After all, who’s going to know if you have sweatpants on below that shirt and tie? (Admit it, we’ve all done it.)

Yes, you should send a gift: Sorry, cheapskates — online weddings aren’t an exemption from buying a gift. “They [guests] wouldn’t be dropping off a gift themselves, given our times, but they could certainly order something off the registry and have it sent,” Symington said. “Cash, check — that’s always appropriate.”

Have a toast ready just in case: Online ceremonies won’t likely be the all-day affairs of a typical wedding, but some brides and grooms invite Zoom guests to say a few words. If you have a personal story or poignant anecdote to share, you may get the chance.

Recipients of an invitation to an online wedding should not view the ceremony as any less significant than a typical wedding. They should send a gift, raise a glass, and help the bride and groom have a day they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. — DG

From the Charlotte Ledger Covid-19 Data Room:

  • Elder care facilities account for 1/2 of N.C. Covid-19 deaths

  • A closer look at county hospitalization figures

  • UNCC epidemiologist says cases ‘slowly leveling’

  • N.C. hospitalizations hit new high; testing surges

Enter the Ledger Covid-19 Data Room

In brief:

  • Unemployment figure: The Charlotte area lost 7,000 jobs in March, according to new federal data released Wednesday, a figure that doesn’t fully capture the job losses connected to the coronavirus because of the timing of the survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the region’s unemployment rate for March at 3.9%, up from 3.4% in February. There were about 52,000 unemployed, up from 48,000 in February.

  • Sonic Automotive cuts: Sonic Automotive has sliced 1/3 of its workforce because of the coronavirus pandemic. A securities filing says the Charlotte-based car-sales company has instituted a “33% reduction in headcount via terminations and furlough.” That represents about 3,000 workers nationwide. (Biz Journal, subscriber-only)

  • Date changes: A bill passed by the N.C. Senate on Wednesday sets the opening date of public schools as Aug. 17, postpones taxes until July 15 and extends drivers’ licenses scheduled to expire by Aug. 1 for six months, among other coronavirus-related changes. (N.C. Senate)

  • Small business adjustments: How some Charlotte small businesses are changing their business models: a nail studio moves to online sales, while a digital marketer shifts to video production. (QCityMetro)

  • Charlotte micro-business loans: The city of Charlotte is taking applications starting Monday for a program that provides loans of up to $10,000 to businesses with five employees or fewer that are based in “opportunity corridors” near uptown. (QCityMetro)

  • Hot job: “Here’s what it’s like to be a contact tracer in Cabarrus County.” (WFAE)

  • Shooting remembrance: UNC Charlotte is holding an online ceremony on today to mark the one-year anniversary of the campus shooting that killed two students. “United: A Remembrance Program” will feature speeches, an artistic video and musical performances. It’s at 5:10 p.m. Today is the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Details here.

Loves me some internet: School’s out

Programming note: Ledger editor Tony Mecia will be a guest today on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins.” The topic: how small businesses in the Charlotte region are staying afloat during this crisis and how they’re planning for an eventual reopening in an uncertain future. Other guests include local business owners. The show airs at 9 a.m. on WFAE (90.7 FM) or on the Charlotte Talks podcast.

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith