The landscape of COVID-19 management changes almost daily. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently loosening restrictions even further and shortening isolation times to President Biden’s recent declaration (possibly prematurely) that the pandemic has ended, it may seem like it’s time to relax COVID-19 protocols in the workplace and return to normal.
Unfortunately, there’s also been new data on the threat of long COVID, which has pulled millions out of the workforce and affected roughly one in five of all the people who have had COVID-19. Plus, in the U.S. alone, deaths due to COVID-19 are currently at around 400 per day at their low, more than twice what you’d normally see in a severe flu season.
These new developments and statistics have made it pretty tough for HR managers and CEOs to decide what safety protocols should remain to protect employees while still maintaining productivity in the workplace.
Here’s what you need to know about COVID-19 safety for businesses, and how the rules could change in the near future.
When will COVID-19 protocols no longer be needed?
When will we no longer need to worry about COVID-19? When can we go back to normal?
Those questions have no easy answers. The short answer is not yet. No one knows exactly when that will change.
Many other things have changed regarding how we think about COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve become used to the idea of safety measures like masks, social distancing, testing, vaccinations, etc. Most of those measures have significantly changed over the past few months. For example, the CDC no longer requires social distancing or for individuals to quarantine if exposed. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 only need to isolate for five days rather than waiting for a negative test.
The reasons for this include the fact a high percentage of the population has already been vaccinated and current omicron variants have generally led to less severe COVID-19 cases than the original delta variant. Plus, daily cases are down to 40,000 per day, compared to 800,000 in January. Given this promising news, HR managers have been taking a page out of the CDC’s book and relaxed protocols accordingly.
However, some experts express concern about reducing safeguards. Even though the daily average is down, this may be at least in part due to unreported home tests. Experts believe that the actual number of cases may be anywhere from three to 30 times higher than the official counts, meaning there could actually be at least 120,000 cases in the U.S. per day.
Also, even if current variants are less severe in terms of hospitalization and death than delta, long COVID can occur even in mild cases, and it isn’t something to be taken lightly. Long COVID can last anywhere from three months after the initial infection to indefinitely. For somewhere between 0.5% and 2% of sufferers, there is no end in sight for severe and debilitating symptoms like ongoing dizziness and brain fog; heart, nerve and gastrointestinal problems; diabetes; headaches; chest pain; and overwhelming fatigue.
All told, COVID-19 is still here. It remains a threat, and businesses need to protect their employees accordingly.
Updated considerations for COVID-19 safety in the workplace
Protecting workers from COVID-19 hasn’t been easy, but there are more answers to the challenges now than ever before. In May, the U.S. reached a sobering statistic: over 1 million COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. While these deaths are tragic, they prompted the government to increase funding in recent months at unprecedented levels to continue to combat the pandemic. In the same way, the long COVID data recently motivated health officials to start a new federal study on long COVID.
Now is the time for businesses to be motivated by this same data and take action to protect the areas of the workplace that require action. First, you can protect your employees through comprehensive vaccination education and policies. Over the years, many companies have instituted vaccination programs and policies to try to ensure all their employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly obvious that being vaccinated won’t necessarily protect you from contracting or spreading COVID-19.
Over time, the effectiveness of vaccines wanes. So, a year or even just six months after getting vaccinated, you have a lot less protection against COVID-19. In addition, the virus is constantly mutating, and there are many different variants that vaccines aren’t always effective at targeting. For example, the latest omicron variants – BA.5 and now BA.4.6 – are extremely good at evading vaccines.
In response, the newest boosters specifically target omicron variants. While the boosters and vaccines are very effective at reducing deaths and serious cases, they aren’t an absolute guarantee that no one will get sick – even debilitatingly so.
That said, vaccines are an important component of protecting individuals in the workplace. So, the important thing is not just whether or even how many times your employees have been vaccinated, but how long it’s been since their last vaccination. Are they still immune? If not, they need to get boosted again (i.e., recent guidance says within three to six months).
Implement best-in-class testing options
The second way you can protect your employees is through new, innovative and, now more widely available, best-in-class testing options. Currently, many companies are encouraging employees to rely on underperforming home tests. Home antigen tests fail to detect COVID-19 in up to nearly 60% of asymptomatic cases and up to 30% in symptomatic cases (i.e., 50% of cases are asymptomatic – and we don’t know who they are until they’re tested). This means they aren’t sufficient to protect your workplace from COVID-19.
PCR tests are extremely accurate. However, it can take up to five days to get results, which isn’t ideal when you want to maintain productivity. A better option is the rapid PCR or PCR-level accuracy rapid microfluidics tests (M-Ag) offered by accredited test providers. You could still perform serial testing with antigen tests, but only as recommended by the FDA’s recent guidance. Serial testing means that you test multiple times, which raises the probability of an accurate result. Unfortunately for in-person events “rapid home antigen” protocols are unrealistic.
Finally, you can protect employees through education and demonstrating to employees that you authentically care about their health and safety. Explain to employees that a single vaccination early in the pandemic isn’t enough. Explain that home tests are a tool if used serially, but they aren’t accurate or timely enough to provide peace of mind in the workplace or at indoor corporate events (e.g., testing three times with 48 hours between each test isn’t a viable solution protocol).
Until COVID-19 is no longer a threat, you can’t afford to do anything less than protect your employees with best-in-class protocols. Doing nothing will cost you health, productivity, innovation and, most importantly, their trust at a time when every person is key to company success.