We are in a different and better place than we were last year when children were returning to school. Now there is a broad recognition that the US and most other developed countries are in the endemic stage.
A Message on COVID-19 from WorkSTEPS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ben Hoffman
We are in a different and better place than we were last year when children were returning to school. Now there is a broad recognition that the US and most other developed countries are in the endemic stage. The disease is widespread; due to treatment advances and immunity conferred by vaccines and prior illness, people are less likely to become seriously ill or die if they are infected.
Given the above, it’s tempting for companies to take the path of least resistance when it comes to Covid-19 prevention and mitigation. That is, to assume Covid-19 illness is just going to happen, accept illness-related impacts as ‘just a cost of doing business,’ and assume a defensive posture with policies and programs.
As of 8/12, the US CDC website reported that an average of 441 people died of Covid-19 infection each day over the past 7 days. Annualized, this makes Covid-19 the 4th leading cause of death in the US – even more deadly than strokes. The death count sits at the end of a cascade of other data points having to do with hospitalizations (7-day average of 5,845 for the week ending 8/15), and new cases (7-day daily average of 103,162 as of 8/12).
From a public health perspective, our focus has largely turned to hospitalization data, which is now the best barometer of the advance of serious disease that could potentially stress the health system. Because the factors mentioned above are preventing serious illness, and because home testing has made case reporting unreliable, case counts are just not as useful from a public health perspective as they once were.
But here’s the thing, when it comes to your business, case counts matter. Cases matter because: 1) Especially with the highly-contagious BA.5 variant, it’s easy for one sick employee to spread disease to others; 2) Every case of Covid-19 means at least 5 days of isolation / absence from work; 3) Even with a relatively young and healthy workforce, some employees or vulnerable family members will become severely ill; and 4) Nearly 1 in 5 adults who become sick with Covid-19 are suffering from symptoms of Long Covid, potentially impacting lost time and medical claims longer term.
Within the next 100 days, kids will return to school, cooling weather will drive more socialization indoors, and the seasonal flu will begin to circulate. Add these factors to an already-dominant BA.5 virus and the possible emergence of another more contagious, elusive, and/or deadly variant emerging, and you have a potential for major disruption to your business. Clearly, it’s time to get in an offensive posture with a strategy to protect your people and your company.
1. Promote and Support Vaccination: As early as September, new bivalent vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna will be available, and many expect that the shots will be broadly available to all adults, not just those 50 and over. These new vaccines have been engineered to protect against the original virus and Omicron-based variants, reducing the chance that those who receive the vaccine will become sick.
A few tips. It will be important to educate employees about how effective vaccines have been at keeping people from serious illness and death. It will also be important to highlight that these new vaccines have been engineered to protect from Omicron variants, and so should do a better job at preventing illness (not just serious illness). Finally, it makes sense to offer vaccines for Covid-19 and the flu at the same time.
2. Optimize Ventilation: Simply put, go back to ventilation settings and practices you put in place during the height of the pandemic. Again, while the risk of severe disease is down, your goal is to prevent new cases and related impacts on your people and business.
3. Track and Manage Cases: I’ve seen companies relax their protocols around tracking illnesses and managing return to work. Because BA.5 is so contagious and elusive, it is critical to know who is out with Covid-19, and to follow CDC Guidance regarding ending isolation and returning them to work.
4. Provide Access to Tests and High-Quality Masks: Covid-19, the Flu, the common cold, and fall allergies – all have overlapping symptoms and will cause confusion and hesitation among employees when it comes to testing. Make rapid testing easy by making tests available to your employees.
It is recommended to keep a supply of high quality N95 masks conveniently-available throughout work areas for employees vulnerable to serious illness, those who simply choose to mask up in various situations, and those returning to work between 6 and 10 days after the onset of Covid-19 illness (per CDC Guidelines).
5. Educate Employees: Now is the time to ramp up communication about Covid-19 to help employees make informed decisions about vaccines, testing, seeking treatment if they get sick, how long they should isolate from work and family, etc. In an information environment that is overwhelming and often misleading, companies can provide a credible source of information on which employees and their families can rely.
After a brief pause, we will again be publishing The Brief at least monthly. Is there a question you have or a topic you’d like us to take on? Email me at email@example.com.