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How businesses can deal with the ongoing COVID-19 and omicron variant surges

Posted by Kanika Sinha

January 25, 2022    |     5-minute read (833 words)

Almost two years into the pandemic, there are still few signs this public health emergency is nearing its end. “We’re very far from being out of the woods,” says Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health. The coronavirus is extraordinarily unpredictable, and things can change dramatically and quickly, he adds.

It is distressingly clear that businesses need to prepare for ongoing surges and new variants of coronavirus. Having a contingency plan in place will help companies respond effectively to any sudden disruption caused by future covid variants.

Crunching the numbers

The delta variant claimed more than 800,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2021, according to Reuters. Now case counts are soaring again, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant. A record number of daily COVID-19 cases were reported in early January 2022, with more than 1 million new infections, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. And the level of community transmission in the country is still high at the time of publication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Considerations for employers

Here are a few preparations you can consider for upcoming COVID-19 surges:

Employer vaccine mandate stands blocked

The Supreme court recently blocked President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with at least 100 workers. The mandate required vaccines or weekly testing at such firms, and required unvaccinated employees to wear masks indoors at work. A similar requirement for health care workers at facilities receiving federal funding was allowed to stand.

Organizations such as Starbucks and General Electric have reversed their vaccine and testing mandates for employees in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. But some major banks like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are holding their firm vaccine mandates intact. Wells Fargo is also continuing its testing program as part of its vaccine-or-test policy. Also, some tech and media companies such as Google, Deloitte, Facebook and American Express are keeping their vaccine requirements for employees in order to work from the office.

Though the ruling has left some businesses mulling whether to nix their vaccine requirements, employers will need to think about the possible ramifications of doing so. It is a distinct possibility that employees may quit jobs that don’t require vaccinations. On the flip side, some customers might avoid businesses that don’t require vaccines.

Meanwhile, businesses may also have to grapple with pushback from customers opposed to vaccine mandates. Workwear brand Carhartt has faced backlash from customers on social media for continuing its plans to require vaccines. Some customers have decided to boycott the brand, while others have welcomed the company’s mandate and thanked Carhartt for taking a stand to ensure employees’ safety.

COVID-19 isolation periods have changed

With omicron reportedly milder than the delta variant, especially for those who are vaccinated, the CDC has updated its guidance on quarantine and isolation. The agency has shortened the recommended time in isolation for COVID-19 patients and now requires people to stay home for five days, as opposed to 10 or more, if they are asymptomatic or if they are fever-free for 24 hours without using medication. However, returning employees would still need to wear a mask for 10 full days to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter. 

While this means employees may get back to work sooner, experts suggest employers remain cautious and concerned if returning employees still have symptoms, as even at the end of five days they could still be contagious. This holds true for variants such as omicron, which is concentrated in the upper respiratory tract that includes the nose and throat, making it between two and four times as contagious as delta. This means employers need to take into consideration not only the case count, but also how infectious any particular variant is before devising return-to-office plans.

Weigh your options

The rapid spread of omicron underscores the importance of once again taking workplace safety into account and weighing whether to stay open or work remotely. Many employers such as Goldman Sachs, Chevron and Jefferies have deferred or changed their January return-to-office plans. Other firms, like Starbucks, BlackRock and Delta Air Lines, have revised their COVID-19 safety protocols in keeping with evolving guidance from public health authorities. 

Overall, there has been a shift in focus — from a nationwide mandatory lockdown meant to protect everybody, to a personal-risk assessment of identifying risks and determining ways to stay safe. It is up to businesses to analyze the risks around their own workplace. This means factoring in the office environment, which includes ventilation and air quality, vaccination rates and community transmission, as well as hospitalizations.

As Michael Daignault, emergency room physician and chief medical adviser for Reliant Health Services puts it, companies no longer have to choose between coming to the office or not. Instead, they have to consider a spectrum of the office being fully open on one end, to working fully remote on the other end, and everywhere in between.

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