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As the delta variant surges, how should businesses respond?

Posted by Kanika Sinha

August 20, 2021    |     4-minute read (1115 words)

With the delta variant of the coronavirus surging in the U.S., infections and hospitalizations are rising again in all 50 states. 

More aggressive and contagious than previous strains, the delta variant now comprises more than 80% of the country’s new COVID-19 cases. It has driven cases from a seven-day average of 13,500 daily cases in early June to 114,190 daily cases on August 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly COVID-19 tracker report.

Additionally, as the delta variant makes people sicker and can be spread by fully vaccinated individuals, the CDC recently reversed its indoor mask policy. The nation’s health protection agency now recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings again.

Owing to this uptick in COVID-19 numbers and the CDC’s indoor mask guidance, employers across the U.S. are facing the difficult task of yet again rethinking their strategies for dealing with uncertainty. Once again, they are recalibrating what steps are necessary to protect employees, customers and communities while keeping their business running.

The good news is that there are steps companies can take to mitigate the threat of the delta variant and other potential future outbreaks as they arise by being creative and flexible. We have culled some strategies and broad measures that businesses can consider adapting as delta changes the pandemic landscape.

Strongly encourage vaccination

With vaccination still the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death from coronavirus infections, including against the delta variant, employers have actively been encouraging their employees to get the shots.

In a May 2021 survey of 660 U.S. employers, an overwhelming 82% of respondents said they had communicated the importance of vaccination to their employees. Meanwhile, 86% of businesses are offering scheduling flexibility for employees to be vaccinated, 55% are providing paid time off for getting the shots and 51% are giving additional leave for vaccine side effects.  

Amid surging coronavirus infections, employers must consider initiatives to increase vaccination adoption among employees who are not motivated to get it. They can plan initiatives to foster conviction and to make vaccines convenient and free, like offering worksite vaccinations.

Consider mandating vaccination

As the delta variant guarantees that this pandemic will not come to an easy end, many companies are moving forward with mandates that require workers to be vaccinated to perform their jobs on-site. Amtrak is requiring all of its employees to be fully vaccinated by November 1, and investment giant BlackRock now allows only vaccinated employees and visitors at its office. Employers should not hesitate to move ahead with new vaccination policies, even if it means mandating vaccines to guarantee the safety of in-office employees. However, they will need to ensure that policies for religious and medical exemptions are consistent with public health recommendations and state and local laws.

Promote testing

Given the delta variant, businesses should think about incorporating testing for the virus into their workplace preparedness and control plans. Also, rapid antigen tests are now available at a reasonable cost and with real-time results. Employers could conduct initial testing of all employees before they are permitted to enter the workplace and also require periodic testing.

Additionally, they can instruct employees to test themselves at home and consider arranging follow-up confirmation tests for those who are asymptotic, with the costs borne by the company.

Consider local transmission rates 

As the risk of the workplace COVID-19 infection transmission is highly associated with the community infection rate, businesses should take into consideration the current weekly infection rate before planning their reopening.

According to the CDC, there are some communities with weekly infection rates exceeding 50 per 100,000, indicating a high likelihood that an employee will bring COVID-19 into the workplace. Companies in such communities should consider delaying employees’ return or keeping the number of employees in the workplace low so as to reduce risk.

Businesses can feel more comfortable having remote employers back in the office in communities where the current weekly infection rate is less than 10 per 100,000.

Limit exposure through social distancing

As some employers are transitioning remote workers back to the workplace gradually or on a staggered basis, they can consider implementing social distancing.

Employers can also use behavioral economics techniques to nudge employees to maintain social distancing in the office. For example, if the capacity of a meeting room should be two people to limit exposure, there should be only two chairs available.

Decide when to recommend/require masks

With increased infection rates, employers can recommend masks, introduce mask mandates or reinstate a universal indoor masking policy in the workplace to deal with the mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. But as states across the U.S. have differing mask mandates, employers must discern whether the local directives are legal requirements or mere guidance, and whether the directives apply to their workplace.

Some U.S. states, including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Texas, have limited or altogether banned mask mandates in certain circumstances. California requires masking for unvaccinated people in all public indoor settings, and Los Angeles mandates masks for all people in outdoor settings. 

However, in response to the highly transmittable delta variant, the CDC now recommends everyone wear a mask in public indoor spaces, regardless of their vaccination status.

Support mental health

The delta variant scare has added to the woes of employees who were already dealing with pandemic-induced mental health issues. And it is likely that attending to employee mental health needs will be even more important in the coming months.

Employers can continue offering virtual and digital mental health care resources to help employees coping with elevated stress in the wake of the pandemic.

Improve ventilation

Ventilation in a building impacts the transmission of the virus, and increasing the amount of air that’s exchanged indoors decreases the spread of disease and lowers the risk of exposure.

Employers can consider improving indoor air quality by adding more air exchanges, improving filtration systems on existing air-handling systems or simply leaving some office windows open.   

Stay current on interventions

Finally, businesses should keep up to date on the effectiveness of various interventions to curtail the spread of the virus. This will help eliminate practices that only marginally improve safety, creating bandwidth for more effective initiatives.

As an example, studies suggest that temperature screenings alone may miss more than half of infected people. Employers should consider removing this type of screening as it is relatively ineffective at decreasing workplace transmission. At the same time, they can step up efforts to clean and disinfect surfaces in the workplace, an intervention that has proven more effective in reducing the risk of infection according to the CDC

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