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How businesses can prepare for the omicron variant

Posted by Kanika Sinha

December 23, 2021    |     4-minute read (688 words)

The emergence of the COVID-19 omicron variant has once again got employers pondering how they can keep employees safe while meeting business needs.

Reported to be circulating in 43 U.S. states at the time of publication, the omicron variant is expected to outcompete the previous delta variant. Hot spots will be generated much easier with omicron, says Andy Slavitt, a former senior pandemic adviser to President Joe Biden.  

In addition to being inherently more transmissible, omicron is likely to be better at overcoming prior immunity, per the CDC. But the good news is that as the virus has evolved, employers have honed their strategies for keeping infections in check. By continuing to be nimble and adaptive in their approaches, they can minimize the threat now and get their businesses disruption-ready.

Here are some broad measures employers can deploy to navigate the omicron variant.

Encourage booster shots

Without a doubt, vaccination still remains the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19, per the CDC. According to the agency’s statistics, in October 2021, those unvaccinated had a 10 times higher risk of getting infected and were 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to vaccinated individuals.

Preliminary research suggests that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may not provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, but that three doses are capable of neutralizing it. Without instituting a mandate, employers can consider promoting booster shots through flexible scheduling and paid time off, along with conducting worksite vaccinations.

Improve ventilation

It has been established that ventilation in a building impacts the transmission of the coronavirus. Increasing the amount of air that’s exchanged indoors can help keep the virus particles from concentrating inside and thus, reduce the likelihood of infection in the workplace, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Improving ventilation doesn’t always require major or expensive renovations. In fact, the CDC suggests some simple tools, such as adding more air exchanges by opening multiple doors and windows or by using indoor fans. Additionally, offices can improve their filtration systems on existing HVAC or air-handling systems.

Encourage testing

Considering omicron’s extraordinary capability of spreading, employers should consider conducting regular COVID-19 testing, regardless of vaccination status.

Though both PCR and antigen tests are able to detect the omicron variant, quick and inexpensive antigen tests may be a better option for employers for screening the virus. Businesses can ask employees to do the test under observation to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines and arrange follow-up confirmation tests for those who are asymptomatic. 

Be cautious about reinstituting travel

The more contagious omicron variant means that employers should be cautious about allowing employees to travel to places where infection risk is high and instead ask them to conduct meetings by videoconference. In cases where business travel can't be delayed, employers should follow strict guidelines to protect their health and reduce risk.

Continue to support mental health care

Nearly two years into the pandemic, many are mourning the deaths of friends and loved ones, as well as longing for a return to normal in-person interaction. This means attending to employee mental health needs will be even more important in the coming months. 

A CDC study has revealed a surge in rates of depression and anxiety during the pandemic. 

Separately, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicates more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. from April 2020 through April 2021, a record annual level. 

With the omicron bringing renewed uncertainty, employers should continue offering access to virtual and digital mental health care facilities to support employees.

Stay agile and flexible

There are still a lot of unknowns about the omicron variant — researchers are still studying its transmissibility, severity and whether vaccinations will stand up to it. So, it is likely that situations and guidance may change quickly. 

Clinical recommendations are being updated frequently too. Changes in booster, mask, quarantine and travel guidelines announced by the CDC can be checked here.

Employers should stay current on the effectiveness of interventions and remain prepared to change course if new information arises.

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