The Case for a Chief COVID Officer

May 29, 2020

The past months have seen a dramatic increase in the need for board oversight and responsibility as companies face the evolving challenges of reintegration, volatile markets, and planning for an uncertain future.  To that end, we were struck by a recent Harvard Governance Blog post recommending that boards consider adopting a "Chief COVID Officer," appointed by and reporting directly to the Board.

Suggested responsibilities would include

  • Ensuring compliance with the multitude of public health guidelines and regulatory requirements at the federal, state, and local levels;

  • Assessing the human capital risks of reopening plans and implementing safety plans that are current with constantly developing guidance; and

  • Preparing response strategies for virus recurrence and future quarantines.

The high-profile nature of the role (to all stakeholders) and elevated risk necessitate a dedicated position.  The article makes the interesting point that although these responsibilities could be undertaken by a number of senior roles, including the CHRO, the seriousness of the situation and the high level of corporate risk involved warrant a designated position.  Given the obligation of the board to manage this risk and its mandated duty to ensure proper oversight of corporate operations, the selection of a Chief COVID Officer might help to discharge this duty under the Caremark standard for director fiduciary responsibility. 

Specific experience and skill sets will be vital.  In particular, the Chief COVID Officer would be responsible for implementing COVID-related safety measures such as screening, tracking, and contact tracing, which as the memo notes will require deep knowledge of regulations from workplace privacy to health and employment.

Why this matters:  The U.S. and many other markets are in various stages of "reopening," but there is not a substantial body of precedent to address the myriad health, legal, and economic risks still present.  Companies may find benefits in designating a specific individual to assume these responsibilities from a centralized approach.  This would ensure regular communication with the board and workforce, potentially reducing miscommunication risks from multiple sources as companies enter "the new normal."