Answering Your Coronavirus Questions: 100,000 Deaths, Religion And The Future Of Work

May 27, 2020
Originally published on May 27, 2020 10:18 pm

On this broadcast of The National Conversation, we'll reflect on experiences from Asian American listeners who have faced racism and discrimination during the pandemic. We'll also answer your questions about religious practices, health insurance and the future of work.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin. And we're here, once again, to answer your questions.

JACKI WORKINGER: Hi. My name is Jacki Workinger (ph).

THOMAS: Hi. This is Thomas (ph) from Chicago.

JUDITH: I am a director of religious education.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In the first, like, month or so, there was a social media account that was called Anti-Asian NYC on Instagram.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My question to the NPR team...

THOMAS: My question is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My question is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How is telehealth insurance coverage changing as we face staggered reopenings?

JOAN: How long is the average hospital stay for COVID-19?

THOMAS: ...Now that most of the world is taking work calls in their PJs, is this the final stand for the power suit?

MIKE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

JUDITH: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: We have experts on hand to offer solid facts, to tell you what we know and to correct some of the misinformation that's floating around. And when we don't know something, we'll tell you that, too. This is our last week answering questions on THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION, at least for the time being. So for the next few days, you can send us your questions about the pandemic, about the way we live now, whatever's on your mind at npr.org/nationalconversation. On Twitter, you can use the hashtag #nprconversation.

But every night, we begin by answering the question, what happened today? The death toll in the U.S. from COVID-19 has crossed 100,000. It's a grim marker, and experts say the number is probably much higher. In the U.S., there have been 1.6 million confirmed infections. Dr. Margaret Harris of the WHO told NPR there's a danger in comparing the coronavirus to the flu, which comes with a seasonal outbreak - with a seasonal break, rather. She said countries need to keep up preventive measures.

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MARGARET HARRIS: When people ease too quickly, that they do then see a rise in infections. So we certainly don't say you have to be in lockdown, but we're saying ease carefully.

MARTIN: The French government has barred the use of hydrochloroquine (ph) to treat COVID-19, saying there is no proof it helps.

For the first time in its history, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill voted by proxy. Democrats hailed the move. Republicans are suing over it. The top Republican in the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy, says it is unconstitutional.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: This challenges the Constitution, only to protect and empower a speaker. It violates the Constitution. It's a dereliction of duty by its members.

MARTIN: Washington, D.C.'s Mayor Muriel Bowser says the city has hit key benchmarks and will start to reopen Friday. She cautioned that the public health emergency would continue.

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MURIEL BOWSER: We know without a vaccine or a cure that we will see new infections.

MARTIN: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, is warning churches in heavily infected areas not to distribute Communion. He also told the Catholic magazine America that congregants and clergy should wear masks in services and strongly discouraged singing. We'll have more on religion and the virus later in this hour.

But first, we all know the pandemic has caused a major economic crisis. And now that economic crisis is making the health emergency worse. An estimated 27 million people have lost their health insurance due to layoffs and furloughs. You've asked us many questions about losing coverage, and to help us answer them, once again, is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Selena, welcome back. It's good to hear from you.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So before we dig into our insurance questions, I do want to start with that terrible number that we talked about earlier. The U.S. passed 100,000 known deaths from COVID-19. And I just wanted to ask you to start by telling us a bit more. What more do we know about who is suffering the most?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right, it's such a grim milestone. And just a moment to acknowledge that 100,000 is a staggering number of people killed by this virus. And there are 100,000 families grieving right now. You mentioned this may be an undercount. How to measure cases and deaths has become politically charged.

As for who has died, we do have some sense of that from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which shows that COVID-19 has been deadlier for males than females. About twice as many men have died than women for age groups up to age 75. Older people, we all have heard all about, have been hit really hard by this; 80% of those who died were 65 or older. And some other analyses have found that nationally, African Americans are dying at more than twice the rate of white Americans, so really stark and troubling disparities.

And I just wanted to mention, Michel, I covered the first known death in the U.S. from COVID-19 on February 29. At the time, the president emphasized there were just a handful of cases in the country. And it's now almost exactly three months later, and the U.S. has gone from one death to 100,000 deaths. And it seems like it's far from over.

MARTIN: Thanks for pointing that out - important. All right, let's turn to our listener questions now. Let's start with Joan (ph) in Jamestown, R.I. And she has a question that might be on the minds of a lot of people who have now lost their insurance. Here it is.

JOAN: How long is the average hospital stay for COVID-19? And how much will it cost?

MARTIN: Any sense of that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, we don't have a clear picture of that for this particular disease yet 'cause it hasn't been around long enough for analysts to look at the claims and figure that out. But we do have an idea from pneumonia hospitalizations. And there was an analysis done by the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker that found that when there are complications and someone's on a ventilator for more than four days, hospital stays ended up averaging 22 days and costing $88,000. Without complications or a ventilator, the stay is an average of three days, costing $13,000. And in general, patient costs for people who have insurance were about $1,300. In a handful of states, the patient costs for COVID treatment are waived, but that is the exception, not the rule.

MARTIN: OK, let's hear from a listener in Texas who was laid off before the pandemic and has a question about COBRA. And that's the program that provides health insurance for people who have lost their jobs. And she says her COBRA runs out at the end of July.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I have several preventative-type appointments I need to have before then. My problem is such appointments are considered elective, and I can't have them all right now. So is there no way that COBRA can be extended?

MARTIN: Selena, what about that? Because I think the listener is reporting something that a lot of people have experienced, which is in a number of places, elective procedures, appointments, et cetera have been put on hold. Do you have any advice?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it's a tough situation. I would say to her, definitely call your providers because they may well open back up before July 31 for appointments. That is starting to happen in a lot of places, including Texas. If her COBRA does expire before she gets those appointments in, there are a few places to look for coverage - the Affordable Care Act Insurance Marketplace or Medicaid. So healthcare.gov is a good place to start to look at options for where you are. And losing your health coverage is considered a qualifying life event to be able to enroll in a new plan.

MARTIN: And let's take this question from another sort of vantage point. We understand that a lot of people are actually putting off surgeries and other important health care measures out of safety concerns. Do we have a sense of the consequences of so many Americans deferring treatment?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Absolutely. Actually, a poll on this just came out this morning from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and it found that nearly half of all Americans say they or a member of their household have put off health care because of the pandemic, which is, you know, an astonishing number. Most of those who deferred care did plan to get those appointments in in the next three months, but you can kind of imagine there might be a traffic jam of people who've put appointments off. And about 1 in 10 polled said that a health condition got worse because of deferring care, so that could mean that when people do get in to see a provider, the condition's harder to treat, which is concerning.

MARTIN: Lindsey (ph) in Denver writes, how do insurance companies plan to handle COVID care if you had to receive treatment at a makeshift facility like a convention center or a Navy ship? Would this be considered in-network? What will happen if you are treated at any facility by a physician who is out-of-network?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is such a good question. When it comes to testing, like if you go to a pop-up coronavirus testing site, your insurer is supposed to cover that, and you're supposed to not have any cost sharing. That means no copay or anything like that. Treatment is a more complicated question. I actually called up Sabrina Corlette. She is at the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms. And she told me that a few states - Massachusetts, Maine and New Mexico - have addressed this issue in some form, so it says especially if you try to get treated in an in-network facility and you get transferred out. In the vast majority of states, though, this is still a live issue. And Congress hasn't addressed it.

And the last part of the question, if you're treated by an out-of-network provider and you get a surprise bill, that's when the patient has to pay the difference between what the provider wants to charge and what the insurance company wants to pay. That could still theoretically happen with COVID-19 care. There is nothing yet passed by Congress to protect patients from this, and it is a real worry.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, we've had a number of questions about this particular issue, so I'm just going to pick one of them. This is from Peter (ph) in Charlottesville. And it's about what all this means for insurance company profits. And here it is.

PETER: With all the layoffs of health care workers, closed practices and fewer medical procedures, what's happening to all the money insurance companies are not having to pay out right now?

MARTIN: Selena, what do we know about this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I asked Sabrina Corlette from Georgetown about this, too. And she's been talking to a lot of insurance companies. She has her finger on the pulse. And she says, yes, it seems like insurers will be quite profitable this year. But because of a provision in the Affordable Care Act, they can't spend more than 20% on profits or administrative costs. And if they do, they have to give some of those profits back to policyholders in the form of a rebate. So for employer plans, the rebate goes back to the employer, not necessarily the individuals. But Corlette says it's predicted that this year's rebate will be the biggest yet, in part because of the lack of elective procedures right now.

MARTIN: That is Selena Simmons-Duffin, who covers health policy for NPR. Selena, thanks so much for tackling so many of these questions. We really appreciate it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Up next, Asian Americans have been the target of racist attacks since the pandemic began. We hear your stories and answer your questions about this behavior and COVID-19. And this is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin.

Suspicious looks, hurtful words, verbal aggression, all the way to acts of physical violence - since the beginning of the crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19, we have been hearing from people across the country who identify as Asian American about this kind of behavior being directed toward them. At the core seems to be the determination by some to blame Asian Americans falsely for the spread of COVID-19. You've reached out to us with questions and concerns on the subject, so we have invited Erika Lee. She is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of "America For Americans: A History Of Xenophobia In The United States." Professor Lee, thank you so much for joining us.

ERIKA LEE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: It's a painful but an important topic, and so we're glad you're here to talk with us about it. Today, former Vice President Joe Biden and Illinois Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth - of course, former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president - published an editorial criticizing President Donald Trump for racializing the pandemic and stoking xenophobia by using the term Chinese virus. I'm really interested in your take on this. Do you see this as kind of a bottom-up or top-down phenomenon? I mean, do you think that people who are prone to these beliefs are taking their lead from the White House, or is it the other way, possibly?

LEE: Oh, I think there's no mistake that statements like the Chinese virus repeatedly and deliberately used by the president and some of his cabinet members is stoking xenophobia and racism amongst the general populace. It's an action that goes against the advice and policy recommendations from the WHO. They say that we should avoid names that might result in discriminatory behavior against places or ethnic groups.

MARTIN: So now I want to turn to some of the stories that listeners have shared with us. And I'll just play them and, Professor Lee, you can tell me what you think, if you have some thoughts about this. Here's the first.

SUNG YEON CHOIMORROW: My name is Sung Yeon Choimorrow (ph). I'm a resident of Chicago, Ill. I am a mother of a 5-year-old. And as you can imagine, we are pretty cooped up in a house - in a little apartment in Chicago. And so I try to get her out for a walk every day, obviously practicing social distancing. I've definitely had people yell at me, telling me to go home or calling me China virus. And one of the times that that happened was when I was with my 5-year-old. And it was a pretty scary experience for her and for me just knowing that there was a stranger yelling at us across the street. And my daughter had no idea what was going on. And I just don't feel like our community is safe for our kids - for my kid at least. And I think that's a really sad reality of how people are racializing this pandemic and scapegoating Asian Americans.

MARTIN: First, I wanted to say thank you for sharing this story. And I want to thank all of the listeners who shared these experiences with us. I just think it's important for people to hear from people directly. Professor Lee, do you have some thoughts here?

LEE: Oh, it's just so sad and scary for both parent and child. You know, unfortunately, Sung Yeon's experience is becoming increasingly common. And I should add that, unfortunately, it's nothing new. You know, we just talked about the president stoking xenophobia and racism in the wake of the pandemic. But, in fact, this has a much longer history that predates Trump by more than a century. China, Chinese people, Chinatowns have always been racialized as places of disease and contagion. And just recently, you know, we've seen how there have been around 2,000 anti-Asian hate crimes tracked since February. There's no indication that it's going to stop anytime soon.

And I feel so strongly, so empathetically with Sung Yeon as a parent myself and for others who are worried about their children and their family members. I'd love to call out a recent article that was just published in the National Geographic that gives parents and others tips about talking to kids on xenophobia. For younger kids, like Sung Yeon's daughter, there's so many more children's books out there that represent the broad range of Asian American experiences. I think it's important, even for young kids, to teach them about racism, stereotypes, falsehoods, to show them that this is part of a larger society, but also to show them that they are represented in children's stories and movies and TVs like they've never been before and to give them a sense of self-worth and representation.

MARTIN: I was interested in your perspective as a historian that we have seen this before historically. That was interesting to note. Let me play another comment from a listener. This is Dr. Karen Tang. She's a gynecologist outside of Philadelphia. And she and some other Asian American doctors were part of a video where they shared messages to stop xenophobia and racism. Let's play it.

KAREN TANG: The idea for the video actually came apart because someone mentioned that there was a hashtag that was trending - #IAmNotAVirus. We felt like, oh, wouldn't it be amazing if we sort of had the perspective of health care workers and physicians who are also saying, you know, not only are we not the virus, but all Asian and Pacific island people, you know, we are not the stereotype that everyone's perpetuating?

So in response to the video, so many of us had overwhelming support and positivity and agreement. But a lot of the physicians who were involved who have a larger audience received a lot of hateful comments, you know, like, oh, bat-eater and, like, well, it came from the wet market, so your people are responsible. So we want to say that we understand that people are scared and they're hurting and they're looking for a target of their, you know, anxiety and that they want to blame someone. But blaming Asian Americans, it doesn't achieve anything. It doesn't help anything. You know, us as health care workers, we're all here to try and help everyone and heal everyone.

MARTIN: Professor Lee, have you heard similar accounts, particularly from health care workers who are highly visible as, you know, front-facing workers addressing this crisis being targeted in this way?

LEE: Oh, yeah. It's one of the biggest ironies. You know, Asian American health care workers and other immigrant workers and minority workers are risking their lives to help and save others, and then they're targeted and vilified because of what they look like and also being associated with China (laughter). It doesn't work in the same way when someone is Norwegian American and to associate them with something that Norway has done. But, you know, Asian Americans are just over 6% of the total U.S. population, but they make up something like 18% of the country's physicians, 10% of its nurse practitioners.

We've long depended upon and recruited immigrant health care workers from specialized doctors to nursing home assistants. And it's just, you know, like Karen said, there's nothing to be gained from blaming Asian Americans, but there's a lot that can be lost. Some of these workers, again, you know, are helping us stay safe. And maybe one of them who's a medical researcher may be finding the cure or vaccine that we all depend on.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that we've really only just scratched the surface. We received many, many such accounts like this. And I did want to mention for the listeners and for you, Professor Lee, that those that we had the time to play really only represent a fraction of the accounts - the personal accounts, painful accounts that we heard from listeners. That's award-winning author Erika Lee. She's professor of history at the University of Minnesota. Professor Lee, thanks so much for talking to us.

LEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: I hope it were under better circumstances, but thank you for joining us.

LEE: Yes, thanks for covering this important topic.

MARTIN: Tomorrow on THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION, with a general election in just a couple of months, what questions and concerns do you have about voting? Send them to us at npr.org/nationalconversation. This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin.

Now we're going to turn to a subject that is central to so many people's lives here in the U.S., and that is their religious practice. While religious teachings often say that the divine presence can be everywhere or anywhere, religious communities often depend on sharing space to celebrate, study, mourn and pray together. And coronavirus has disrupted much of that in temples, churches, synagogues and mosques across the country.

We're joined now by two faith leaders who are working with their communities to navigate this. And they're here to discuss some of your questions as well. Imam Mohammad Altahir (ph) is Imam and president of the Islamic Center of Laramie, Wyo. Imam, welcome.

MOHAMMAD ALTAHIR: Hi. Good evening.

MARTIN: Good to see you. And Reverend Lane Moore is director of missions with the Northwest Louisiana Baptist Association. He advises more than 100 Baptist churches in his area. Reverend Moore, welcome to you as well. It's good to have you with us.

LANE MOORE: Good evening, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I'm just going to start by just asking what transitions your communities went through as coronavirus cases increased and authorities began recommending that gatherings be limited. Imam, you want to start?

ALTAHIR: Yeah. Since the country has been in lockdown in the middle of March, so we reached out to our people here and (unintelligible) of the mosque, and we can mend the situation that for the safety of the community and the safety of the people who are coming to the mosque, so we're going to restrict and postpone all prayers in the mosque until further notice. And we're just going to do Friday prayers with very few representations, three to five people, that will come to represent the community here. And we were able to get the ceremonies online. And then people can watch them on Facebook. Fortunately, the community here is a university community, so people are familiar with the technology. They are on Facebook. They are on Twitter. They are on YouTube. So we didn't face any major problems with it. And, yeah, Islam has inherently very clear protocols about pandemics and how people should behave there. And to manage the situation wasn't difficult, and the response was really great.

MARTIN: Oh, that's great to hear. Reverend Moore, what about you?

MOORE: Well, our churches experienced the same thing as all churches did around the country. It was fine one week. And the next week, it's come to a screeching halt. And so we were not able to physically meet. But as was just mentioned, many of the churches turned to social media sites to be able to broadcast their services, be it any number of ways. But what was lacking was the physical gathering, and we believe that's essential to the practice of our Christian faith is to be able to gather together with brothers and sisters in Christ, and that was what we were not able to do in a formal corporate setting.

MARTIN: And so, Reverend Moore, can I just ask you, since the imam was saying that a lot of the people in his congregation, in his community had the technology and knew how to use it and felt it was pretty seamless, but what about you, Reverend Moore? Is there anything in particular you've really struggled with besides not being able to physically gather?

MOORE: Well, the message of Jesus Christ still went forward through the social media sites. Many had either television access programs, Facebook streaming their services, so they were able to still get the message of Jesus Christ, of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and savior, out to their members and any others. And many pastors said they were reaching many more people through that route than were walking in the doors of their church on any given Sunday. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise, if you will. And many that have returned to corporate worship now are continuing that same model. So it's a both-and, not an either-or.

MARTIN: Interesting. Imam, is there anything that you - that you're struggling with now, anything that's still a pain point?

ALTAHIR: One of the things that we struggle with is that people wanted to come to the mosque. It's an integral part. Almost all men are obliged to come to the mosque for all five prayers if they can, and especially Friday prayer, where it's not even (unintelligible) - to go about it and not come into the mosque. But at the end of the day, the safety of the people is more important than the gathering itself.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ALTAHIR: Yeah, the spirit of the community will diminish a little bit, but at the end of the day, it's for sake of everybody's safety. And it's a temporary thing. Hopefully, all of this will clear out very, very soon.

MARTIN: So let me play a clip from a listener. This is Judith (ph). She's director of education at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Florida, and she struggled a bit with the move to online religious life, especially with her older congregants. Let me just play that.

JUDITH: Because everybody's level of technology understanding, literacy is different, you're trying to meet everybody's needs. And, you know, we have 85-year-old members of the congregation who don't necessarily get how the chat list works or how to, quote, "raise your hand" on a Zoom call so that we can acknowledge them. So making that happen is completely different.

MARTIN: And Judith also said she's struggling to reach folks at the other end of the age spectrum for different reasons. Let me just play that as well.

JUDITH: Kids don't have the privacy in their own homes when they're on Zoom that they have in the youth group room. And when they're on a conference call on the computer, they're often in a living room or in a family room or somewhere where their end of the call can be heard. So they're missing out on something that they can normally have.

MARTIN: Reverend Moore, you have any thoughts about that?

MOORE: Well, obviously, the global message of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is being used in a wonderful way through the Internet and through social media. And as great as that has been, it can't duplicate the human touch, and that's what I think Judith was referring to, is that 85-year-old can't get together with her ladies that she's known for decades to be able to have that Christian fellowship together. And that's just a reality. We couldn't do what we couldn't do back over the last couple of months.

And when a young person is sitting at the kitchen table and his mom - and her mom or dad is looking over the shoulder and they're in a Zoom meeting, he's obviously not going to be probably as honest as he would be if he's at a church setting, if he's in a group of his peers and they're talking about sensitive issues. That's just the reality that you just can't duplicate and can't replicate what you do when you're in your peer group.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. Sure. It is a pain point. Let me have another - we've - talking to a number - we've talked to a number of people who have had to postpone or adapt important religious rituals and sacraments. And this is Reverend Dan (ph), who's a minister in Virginia.

DAN: I think people are holding off because, usually, baptisms for Christians are family events with family, grandparents, extended family coming to their home to celebrate with them. And they just don't want to invite problems with COVID-19.

MARTIN: We're going to need to take a very short break in a minute, and I'm hoping that you will both stay with us for that. But when we do come back, Imam, I'm going to ask you about this. I mean, this has been something that we've heard from a number of people. It's just quite painful. I mean, of course there are joyous celebrations that people have looked forward to having that perhaps they can, you know, postpone, whether those are, you know, mitzvahs or, you know, weddings. We've heard of a number of weddings. But funerals, generally, and most of our traditions cannot be postponed. So when we come back from our very short break, I just wanted to hear from each of you, starting with you, Imam, about how you're comforting people when they have to put off these kinds of rituals in a way that bring them comfort. I hope you'll both stay with us, Imam Altahir and Reverend Moore. I hope you'll stay with us on THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

And we're back with Imam Mohammad Altahir of the Islamic Center of Laramie, Wyo., and Reverend Lane Moore of the Northwest Louisiana Baptist Association. So before we took our brief break, Imam, I was talking about the fact that many people have to put off - have had to put off, you know, very important rituals for safety reasons. How have you handled that with people in your community?

ALTAHIR: Yeah. During this lockdown, the month of Ramadan was there, and it's a month of community, and people fast and break fast together. And they usually come to the mosque to share a meal or bring their own dishes and reach out to other members of the community. But they missed it. And I know a lot of mosques in bigger towns, they have gatherings every day. And certainly, in the past Ramadans here - I've been here for two years - yeah, we had a little breakfast every Friday. And we have a special prayer after the fifth day on the day where a lot of people come, especially in Ramadan, to witness that prayer.

So during this time, they couldn't do that. And we have a lot of people reaching out to us about how to manage this and how to do it at home. And we could manage that we - you can do it still at home. And we remind them that the incentive of, like, keeping the distance for the sake of everybody's health is they going to get rewards from almighty Allah for it. So the prophet was clear about it, and he has many, many talking points about this issue. And then people were convinced. It's a hard time, and we have up online an email, and we are available through Facebook. Anybody can reach. They are online if they want to talk to anybody. We have those hotlines available. And people manage to get through it.

And after Ramadan, we have a very big festival day. That was the hardest day so far we had. People gather in the morning for the festival prayers, for Eid (ph), (unintelligible). And usually, people come with their kids, and everybody will have a fun time. And the adults will pray. The kids will play.

MARTIN: Sure.

ALTAHIR: But all of this was missing. And instead, we managed to get the people to the prayer, but we have directed that kids are not allowed to come to the mosque at this time...

MARTIN: Oh, that's hard.

ALTAHIR: ...Because we can't control them anymore.

MARTIN: That's hard.

ALTAHIR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Reverend Moore, I have one more for you, if I may. And this is Beth (ph), who is married to an evangelical pastor in Oregon. And she spoke of adapting Communion. And here it is.

BETH: We upload the worship service to YouTube, and so then people are watching that. And, you know, they should provide in their own homes. You know, get your bread. Get your wine or your juice. And the thought of people doing that at different times, you know, because it's on YouTube...

MARTIN: Reverend Moore, what about that? And I do want to say that Beth also shared how much she misses singing, which I'm sure that - singing together. As briefly as you can, any words of comfort for folks who are missing these things, as briefly as you can?

MOORE: Well, Beth is exactly right. That's about all you could do when you're in a shutdown mode and you can't physically get together to partake of the Lord's Supper. This past Easter in April, many churches did just that. They had - a pastor led them through online. You gathered your own elements at your own home, and you shared that. And so that was really what you had to do to get through these days.

MARTIN: All right. That is Reverend Lane Moore, director of missions with the Northwest Louisiana Baptist Association, and Imam Mohammad Altahir of the Islamic Center of Laramie, Wyo.

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MARTIN: This is THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION WITH ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin.

For many of us fortunate enough to be able to do our jobs without going into an office, remote work has been a blessing and a curse. And even as states start to lift stay-at-home orders, some companies are saying that work from home is here to stay. But many front-line workers in grocery stores, hospitals and transit don't have that luxury. Companies big and small are now reevaluating office layouts and remote management.

To help answer listener questions about the future of work, we've called Jason Wingard. He is the dean of Columbia University's School of Professional Studies. Professor Wingard, thanks so much for joining us.

JASON WINGARD: Michel, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Yeah. We've been hearing from a lot of people - and I do want to say this is accurate, not editorializing; this is accurate - mostly without children, who say that they're actually more productive working from home. And Mike (ph) in Minneapolis has a question about that.

MIKE: What are companies planning to do to balance those employees that have proven to be as, if not more, productive at home versus those that need an in-office work environment?

MARTIN: Professor...

WINGARD: Mike, that's...

MARTIN: ...Have you been hearing that, too...

WINGARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That people say that? Yeah.

WINGARD: Absolutely. Mike - that's a good question from Mike. There will be a point in the future when companies ask employees to come back to the office. Boards and CEOs - right now, they're asking themselves, what if employees don't physically want to come back? Then what do we do? So in this era of what I am calling the new professionalism, which was brought on by COVID-19, I advise employers to practice empathy and determine each worker's situation. So that means if an employee is productive while working from home and if they're reluctant to return to the office, then managers should consider granting that employee their wish to remain home-based. Now, various factors may impact that decision, factors like job function - do they have the type of job that allows them to work remotely? - or personal situation - are they caring for children or sick family members? And then there's anxiety level. Do they have a paralyzing fear of being infected that keeps them from being productive? All of these factors need to be considered. And the reason I advise is because talent is a firm's most valuable asset, and it's in their best interest to take care of that talent, which is their employees.

So research shows us that allowing employees flexibility will result in greater returns on productivity than, say, toeing the hard line and not being sensitive to extenuating circumstance. So in summary, flexibility creates loyalty, and we all know loyalty is good for business.

MARTIN: Just briefly, just a brief follow-up here - does it create feelings of people who, for whatever reason, have to work in the office and other people don't - I mean, does it create any kind of morale friction there? Have you observed that in your research?

WINGARD: Yeah, term there is animosity. So, you know, even before the crisis, even in other circumstances, employees feel like there is a lack of fairness at times - so if somebody is allowed to work at home or if somebody doesn't have children - that they are unfairly being given opportunities that they themselves don't have.

MARTIN: Some states have already reopened what had been deemed nonessential businesses, and we have a question from Angel (ph) in South Carolina, who's wondering how companies can keep their employees safe.

ANGEL: I work for a smallish nonprofit, about 23 to 30 employees on any given day. And we have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic. Now that the governor of South Carolina has started to open the state back up, we're preparing to bring our employees back into our office. What are best practices, and what is everyone else doing?

MARTIN: Dean, I bet you could do a whole program about this. But as briefly as you can, what do you think?

WINGARD: Angel, the way in which companies are bringing back employees is really dependent on two things, location and function. So generally speaking, most firms are taking a thoughtful approach to decision-making by aligning with government and health organization recommendations. So the leaders of these organizations, the companies, they've had several months now to devise strategies that best suit their workforce and their stakeholders, so the solutions are more sophisticated than they might otherwise be.

So for example, I've spoken with some CEOs who decided to bring their workers back in phases. The first to return to the office will be the employees most needing to be onsite, the proverbial essential workers. And then I've also spoken with CEOs about flex schedules, and flex schedules are where separate groups of workers report to the office on different days, and that's to minimize exposure to each other. So obviously, once employees are on the site, wherever they arrive, however they get there, whatever the phased approach is, the workspaces need to be altered to ensure physical distancing is being practiced.

MARTIN: I have a question here about school closures. Here it is.

WORKINGER: Hi. My name is Jacki Workinger, and I live in Havre de Grace, Md. And my question is, if in the U.S. students do not go back to public school, how will parents, especially single parents, be able to go back to work?

MARTIN: Dean, what about that, and especially given the fact that, you know, some - first of all, a lot of people who are working at home while parenting and trying to educate their kids - that's exhausting. But then some people, you know, service workers and, as we've just - as I think everyone knows, some people have not been able to work at home at all and have been scrambling. So what about that?

WINGARD: So that's a great question, and I actually have to deal with this problem myself, having kids at home and trying to work. I've seen both sides of the work-at-home experience, so both as an adviser to managers but also as a manager myself. Some workers have actually had a pleasant experience, and they will actually need to be lured back to the physical office when and if the time comes. But on the flip side, I've seen workers who have encountered significant challenges trying to work in the crisis, like Jacki. She's trying to balance the strands of parenting. Others don't have suitable workspace. Some workers are experiencing mental health issues related to the crisis, such as anxiety and depression.

So for your listeners out there in tune with these dilemmas, firms will absolutely need to raise the employee comfort level before they return to work. Confusion breeds chaos. And then when chaos ensues, nothing gets done. Managers are going to need to clearly communicate the actions they've taken to make sure that everyone knows that the provisions taken to establish a clean and healthy workplace have been executed. So whether it be taking workers' temperatures each day or sharing new office design plans that space people apart or having plexiglass dividers, they're going to need to illustrate steps taken to ensure their safety.

MARTIN: And this last question here - I think this is all we have time for - is about the five-day workweek. The previous - well, the once and perhaps future presidential candidate Andrew Yang just tweeted, quote - he tweeted it this this week. He said, "we should seriously look at a four-day workweek. Studies show we would be just as productive. It would create jobs at the margins and improve mental health." What do you say?

WINGARD: Well, that sounds nice, and I can see the allure of Andrew Yang's proposal, but I don't think such a shift is likely in the short term in the United States. Although we are seeing high levels of disruption in the professional space, and some are due to COVID-19, there are traditional work practices, including the 40-hour workweek, that will just be difficult to revamp. As more nations begin to implement a four-day workweek - Finland, for example, is leading the charge in this area - the risk-averse companies and employers here in the United States, they're going to take a wait-and-see approach.

MARTIN: OK.

WINGARD: So will productivity levels rise or will they fall? We will be watching the Finlands and other nations going in that direction to help inform the decisions in this country. So once a firm opts for a four-day workweek, it'll be very difficult to regress back to Monday through Friday.

MARTIN: And no pajamas in the office, probably - probably never that. All right (laughter).

WINGARD: Probably never.

MARTIN: Jason Wingard is the dean of Columbia University's School of Professional Studies. Dean Wingard, thanks so much for joining us on THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.