8/6/21 COVID-19 Brief: Do It Right the Second Time

Here we are once again, needing to ramp up policies and programs to protect our employees, contractors, and customers from Covid-19. There is a need and opportunity to do it better than we did before – to do it right the second time.

A Message on COVID-19 from WorkSTEPS Medical Director Dr. Ben Hoffman:

Do It Right the Second Time

Not Where We Hoped We’d Be

It’s been about three months since I wrote the last Covid-19 Brief. In the interim, we’ve experienced rising hopes, bolstered by real-life experiences that reminded us how good it feels to gather with friends and family, eat out, go on vacation, go to a sporting event or concert, and even get back into the office. All of that hope and joy has been made possible by extremely effective vaccines that have protected many of our most vulnerable citizens and tens of millions of others who’ve been vaccinated.

But something happened on the way back to normal. Vaccination rates stopped climbing and got stuck below the target range of 70% to 80% - far lower in some counties and states. This has left a large number of people very susceptible to the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus, a variant that is more infectious and more dangerous than previous variants by orders of magnitude. Now Delta is ruthlessly spreading among the unvaccinated, (including those who can’t be vaccinated due to age or health reasons), and it’s infecting even some who have been vaccinated. And while the vaccine is doing a good job of protecting those who get sick from serious illness, high viral loads mean even vaccinated people appear to be good carriers of disease.

So, here we are once again, needing to ramp up policies and programs to protect our employees, contractors and customers from Covid-19. There is a need and opportunity to do it better than we did before – to do it right the second time.

Doing it Right – Strategic Considerations

I’d been thinking about how to present guidance when I received a pre-publication version of Creating #CovidSafeZones in America's Workplaces, an open letter to US business leaders signed by public health and science experts, leaders in health, education, and civil society, and former officials from both political parties, and facilitated by the Business Roundtable. My thinking largely aligns with the letter, and I recommend reading and sharing it to help build support for your strategy in this new phase in the battle against Covid-19. You may also want to check out resources available at the Business Roundtable’s Move the Needle web page.

I recommend taking decisive action based on three strategic considerations:

1. Focus on Doing Best What Matters Most – Vaccination: Achieving a vaccination rate of 70% to 80% is the most important thing your organization can do to achieve the twin aims of protecting health and resuming/maintaining operational speed and growth.

2. Mask Up: Updated CDC guidelines suggest indoor masking for all (vaccinated or not) in areas where the rate of disease spread is substantial or higher. Practically speaking, I’d recommend just implementing mandatory masking policies for employees and customers regardless of local transmission levels until transmission risk is in broad retreat. Toggling mask policies on and off based on county-level risk data will be time-consuming and confusing for employees.

3. Mind the Basics: Good ventilation and distancing are essential building blocks. Maintain or reinstate work-from-home arrangements and continue/reinstate protocols to avoid close contact in hallways, meeting rooms, cafeterias, and other spaces where employees may crowd. Finally, continue conservative travel policies focused on allowing only essential travel.  

Pull Out the Stops to Drive Vaccinations – A Range of Bold Options

A bit of context is useful here. First, let’s assume that your organization has already taken actions to drive vaccinations, including the sorts of things outlined in this article I wrote in May. Second, social pressures to get vaccinated are increasing. Third, there are many among those who’ve not yet been vaccinated who can be moved/whose minds can be changed.

With the above facts in mind, I would argue that now is the time for bold action. In addition to updating and continuing basic education efforts, now is the time to give those who are not vaccinated a strong reason to change their mind. Some are waiting for just that – a reason to justify backing away from a position that they are coming to realize is misinformed.  

Following are three ways your company can take bold action and drive vaccinations:

1. Offer Generous Incentives: If the stick is not consistent with your corporate culture, try a big carrot – straight-up cash, a lottery with a big pay-off, additional paid time off, or other ideas. How big is big? Think of it this way: What would it take for friends and family of your unvaccinated employees to say “You’d be crazy to pass that up!”? While I’m not a big fan of such incentives, for organizations unwilling or unable to implement the big stick of a mandate, it may be the best available route, especially when paired with the screening (next option).

2. Regularly Screen Unvaccinated Employees: Require those who don’t have or refuse to show proof of vaccination to get screened for Covid-19 on an every-five-days basis. In addition to the important protective value of such a policy, it creates an inconvenience for those who are unvaccinated, and can provide a regular teachable moment to reinforce the importance of vaccination.

3. Mandate Vaccines: This is the boldest option, but one that is becoming more commonplace as more and more companies and government entities mandate vaccines for some or all employees. If these first-movers succeed in implementing policies without major disruptions or employee attrition, I expect the trend will accelerate. If your company’s not ready mandate, be sure to regularly benchmark competitors within your industry and regional/workforce competitors to inform your decision.

Companies need to be bold, and they need to be bold now! We can help your organization explore options, navigate concerns, and develop a strategy that’s right for your situation and culture. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more about how we can help your company.

Ben Hoffman, MD, MPH
Chief Medical Officer, WorkSTEPS

For more from Dr. Hoffman, connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Newsletter written by WorkSTEPS CMO Dr. Ben Hoffman and WorkSTEPS’ expert medical team.