Automakers Are Making Cars, but Virus Surge Puts That at Risk

Automakers Are Making Cars, but Virus Surge Puts That at Risk

Automakers are back to building cars and trucks at full speed — at least for now. But as coronavirus cases rise across much of the country, it may become difficult for the companies to keep at it.This week, General Motors will lay off a third shift of workers — about 1,250 people — at its truck plant in Wentzville, Mo., where absenteeism has been rising because workers are concerned about the spread of the virus. Union workers at a G.M. plant in Texas, where hospitals have been inundated, have called on the company to shut down their factory.The auto industry, which accounts for about 4 percent of the country’s economic output, came to a near standstill in mid-March for nearly two months as the first wave of coronavirus cases spiked. Fiat Chrysler, Ford Motor, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and other manufacturers are now running almost all of their plants in the United States on two or three shifts, which amounts to full capacity.The revival has helped automakers restock depleted dealer lots and cater to a rebound in demand that has been driven in part by people who feel they need a car for social distancing during the pandemic. Car sales in June were down from a year ago but were more robust than what analysts had expected.But conditions are changing fast. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California on Monday ordered restaurants, wineries, movie theaters and other businesses to halt indoor operations. He stopped short of closing factories — such as the Tesla plant in Fremont, which employs some 10,000 workers — but he suggested that he was open to restricting economic activity further if the pandemic worsened.“We’re going back into modification mode of our original stay-at-home order,” Mr. Newsom said. “This continues to be a deadly disease.”Regardless of what governors, mayors and other policymakers order companies to do, auto manufacturers will most likely be forced to make changes like reducing shifts and temporarily closing plants, said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan.“Every plant has a lot of workers, so there will be at least a few workers at every plant that come down with Covid,” he said. “When that happens, other workers will fear that they will be next. No matter what the states allow, it will be hard to keep the plants operating.”Last month, members of the United Auto Workers union called on G.M. to shut down a sport-utility vehicle factory in Arlington, Texas, in response to the rapid spread of the virus in that state. On Monday, Toyota said it had seen an increase in coronavirus cases among workers at its plant in San Antonio, but the company declined to disclose how many people had taken ill.Auto plants bring several thousand workers together under one roof every day. Manufacturers have taken a range of precautions to prevent infections among workers, including the use of masks, gloves and face shields. Companies are also monitoring the body temperatures of workers, making time for sanitizing work areas and adding barriers to shield people who need to work close to one another to complete certain tasks.Car companies are reluctant to halt production again, fearing what it would do to their finances just as they were recovering from the shutdown in the spring. Layoffs would also be difficult for workers. The extra $600-a-week supplement to unemployment insurance authorized by Congress in March, which helped many autoworkers, ends on July 31. It is not clear if lawmakers will extend the benefit.Shortly after factories reopened in May, some automakers temporarily shut down plants after workers — usually just one or two — tested positive for the coronavirus. No automakers have reported widespread outbreaks like those that have affected meat-processing plants.

Updated July 7, 2020

Is the coronavirus airborne?
The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“Since restarting our operations, we have not had any spread of the virus in our plants,” said Jodi Tinson, a spokeswoman for Fiat Chrysler. “Where we have had an employee test positive, social distancing, mandatory use of personal protection equipment, and cleaning and disinfecting have been in full use.”Some of the most closely watched plants are in Texas, which has had more than 265,000 cases, and has been averaging more than 9,000 new cases a day for the last seven days.A G.M. spokesman, Dan Flores, said the company was confident that the many safety measures it had put in place at factories would protect employees.“People on our team should not be concerned about coming to work,” he said. “All of our facilities are following protocols that are working very well to keep people safe by reducing the possibility that Covid-19 can enter the plants and spread within the plant.”G.M. encourages all employees to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently. The company said it would eventually restart a third shift at the Wentzville factory, but can’t say when that might happen.Toyota has idled its plants in Texas, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Canada this week as part of a planned summer shutdown.


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Debbie
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