Amazon released some long-awaited data this week -- the number of Amazon employees who have either tested positive for Covid-19, or who are otherwise suspected of having been infected.

The Amazon news was overshadowed by word that President Trump and the First Lady tested positive, of course, but there's a surprising takeaway from Amazon's rates of infection--starting with Amazon's conclusion that its employees are infected at a lower rate than the public at large.

Amazon says it has 1.372 million front line employees, mainly those working in Amazon warehouses and at Whole Foods supermarkets. Of them, the company said in a statement that it's seen a total of 19,816 employees with either confirmed or suspected positive diagnoses.

That works out to about a 1.44 percent infection rate. And Amazon says that number is 42 percent lower than might be expected, compared to the level of infection in the general population, "accounting for geography and the age composition of our employees."

Does it check out? Well, I bookmarked it against the running tab of cumulative diagnoses that the New York Times keeps, and that shows 7.3 million cases as of Friday.

As a portion of the U.S. population, which was roughly 331 million as of earlier this year, it would work out to a 2.20 percent infection rate. Amazon's infection rate would in fact be considerably lower, although again we have to consider the age and location of Amazon workers.

Amazon also broke out state-by-state reporting rates, which basically reflected the trend, with a couple of exceptions. In 39 states, the company claimed the data showed its employee infection rate was lower than what would have been expected compared to the rest of the state.

The biggest outlier was Minnesota, where Amazon employees had a 3.17 percent infection rate, compared to 1.58 percent for the state. As it happens, an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota was identified earlier this year as having had a high rate of infections.

According to the data Amazon released this week, therefore, it would seem that might have been an exception to the rule.

Amazon employees in West Virginia also had a higher infection rate: 1.31 percent infection rate compared to a 0.77 percent state case rate. Also, nine states have fewer than 1,000 Amazon employees, the company said, "which is too small of a population for meaningful analysis."

This is the first time Amazon has released data like this. Few other big companies seem to have done something similar, as far as I can find, and I think Amazon is on solid footing here to ask its corporate peers and rivals to follow suit.

"We hope other large companies will also release their detailed learnings and case rates because doing so will help all of us," the company said in a statement. "This is not an arena where companies should compete--this is an arena where companies should help one another."

Nevertheless, while we don't have anything to compare Amazon to, it's still worth looking at the measures Amazon said it's taken. Some of these are things that might be harder to replicate in a smaller business; others are easier.

Of course, it's impossible to know which of the measures helped the most, but they included:

  • distributing face masks to employees (over 100 million, apparently);
  • implementing temperature checks at sites around the world; 
  • "mandating enhanced cleaning procedures at all of our sites," to the point that "door handles, stairway handrails, lockers, elevator buttons, and touch screens," are supposed to be cleaned every 90 minutes;
  • "introducing extensive social distancing measures;"
  • telling employees about "every new case in their building;" and
  • putting some employees on paid leave if they'd simply been exposed to other employees who tested positive (they say this number has declined over time).

If you're running a smaller business, I think the biggest takeaway is one that I often advise -- and the reason I pay a lot of attention to what big, public companies do. It's that Amazon is in a position to research and study things to a greater extent than you might be able to, simply because of its scale and size.

For example, Amazon says it "enlisted several of the world's leading epidemiology and outbreak-response doctors to work with our 5,000-member global safety team" to come up with its plan. Chances are you don't have the resources to mount an effort that large.

But, while a skeptical eye might be warranted, you can still beg, borrow, and steal from the experiences of a bigger company that can.