With many US organizations in the midst of returning employees to the workplace, a concerning new COVID-19 variant has emerged, once again testing our mettle and resolve. Although the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in the US are still from the Delta variant, the Omicron variant has been detected in 21 states. The looming threat has prompted President Biden to announce new actions, Mayor Bill De Blasio to expand New York City’s vaccine mandate to private employers, and Ford Motor Company to push back their return to the worksite.
We are still several weeks away from having enough reliable data to answer important questions about Omicron. Early reports from South Africa, where just under 30 percent of people have been fully immunized, suggest Omicron is spreading at least twice as fast as the Delta variant – but also that it may cause less severe cases of Covid-19. However, experts caution against reading too much into these early reports, which are based on small numbers of patients. Meanwhile, scientists are racing to discover how much protection current vaccines and prior COVID-19 infections provide against Omicron. Until we know more, public health officials advise following the layered prevention strategies known to slow the transmission of the virus, in particular masking and physical distancing in public indoor spaces and increased testing.
The OSHA vaccination and testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) remains in legal limbo. But with a winter surge in COVID-19 cases already underway and Omicron posing a potential new threat, now is the time to review your organization’s pandemic response to date and assess what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what changes you should make to protect your employees, customers and business heading into 2022.
Return to the workplace. Until there is a better understanding of the threat posed by Omicron, it may be too early to make a final decision on whether to delay (or reverse) your return to worksite. But it makes sense to conduct scenario planning so that you are ready to move quickly if Omicron warrants a change in strategy. If earlier trends hold true, we are likely to see a delay of return-to-office plans, just as we saw with Delta in the fall. Employers already are starting to defer travel and holiday celebrations. Also, employees generally have been resisting returning to offices, and with a surge in cases they will almost certainly push back even more on return plans.
Workforce planning. If the new variant does indeed transmit more rapidly than Delta among unvaccinated people – and potentially even among vaccinated people – you can expect disruption to operations. Remember, even if Omicron turns out to cause less severe disease, people who become infected will still miss work due to illness and quarantines. In addition, employees are burnt out, and now may be facing disruptions in child care and elder care. Flexibility and continued well-being support will be critical. Do you have a plan in place to respond to temporary workforce shortages?
Paid time off. Many employers implemented emergency leave policies or expanded paid sick leave when the pandemic first hit to encourage employees to quarantine if they or a family member were exposed to COVID-19. Should Omicron turn out to be more contagious than prior variants, will you need to implement, or update, an emergency leave policy? What about paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and boosted? Although it is still not clear how much protection current vaccines provide against Omicron, the CDC advises that vaccines remain the best protection.
Vaccine mandates, incentives or surcharges. With the OSHA ETS held up in the courts, President Biden is asking private employers to push forward with vaccine or testing mandates. If you are still on the fence about implementing a mandate, it might be helpful (and prudent) to collect current data on your employee vaccination rates and assess the impact a highly contagious variant could have on your workforce and your operations. If not a vaccination or testing mandate, you might still consider an incentive or premium surcharge to encourage voluntary vaccination. And if you have been promoting or mandating vaccination, consider how best to encourage booster shots – early reports indicate that they may have an important role in slowing the spread of Omicron.
Testing. The good news is that both PCR and antigen tests are able to pick up the Omicron variant. If you were considering implementing COVID-19 testing for onsite workers, you may want to proceed with those efforts to minimize workforce shortages and operational slowdowns should cases continue to rise in the US over the winter. The advent of new antiviral medications that need to be administered within days of infection to be effective is another argument for facilitating testing. (This post discusses the new requirement for health plans to cover over-the-counter COVID-19 tests without cost-sharing.)
While it was dispiriting, to say the least, when the news about Omicron broke over the Thanksgiving weekend, keep in mind how much we have all learned since the pandemic first struck. We may need to revisit and revise strategies as we learn more about this new threat to our hard-won recovery, but we have been down this path before – and we are still standing.
Dr. Lorna Friedman, Rich Fuerstenberg, Lauren Mason and Wade Symons contributed to this post.