US companies say shortened isolation will ease staffing woes, but health concerns linger
By Lauren Hirsch
New federal guidance shortening the recommended isolation periods for many infected Americans will provide relief to companies struggling with staffing shortages, businesses said earlier this week, but labor representatives warned that the move could push some employees back to work too soon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reduced the number of days that infected patients should remain isolated — and for many workers, sidelined — to five days from 10. Anyone leaving isolation must be free of symptoms and should wear a mask when near others for an additional five days.
The updated policy was embraced by representatives for industries including air travel, food and retail. The omicron variant has torn through already short-staffed sectors, temporarily shutting restaurants and causing the cancellation of thousands of flights that disrupted Christmas travel. More than 1,000 flights “within, into, or out of the United States” were canceled Tuesday, according to FlightAware, which provides aviation data.
“The aviation workforce is essential to maintaining the operations of air travel and cargo supply chains,” the trade group Airlines for America said in a statement. “The decision is the right one based upon science.”
But the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents nearly 50,000 flight crew workers, had argued that employees should not be expected to return to work unless they had no symptoms and tested negative.
“Already the lack of paid sick leave creates pressure on workers to come to work sick,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the union. “Corporations that fail to recognize this with paid sick leave, or pressure workers to come to work sick or face discipline, are failing their workers and their customers.”
Delta Air Lines, which last week urged the CDC to reduce the recommended isolation time, said Monday it had already begun to adopt the new advice as company policy.
“The updated guidance allows more flexibility for Delta to schedule crews and employees to support a busy holiday travel season and a sustained return to travel by customers,” the airline said in a statement.
A spokesperson for American Airlines referred questions about the new CDC recommendations to Airlines for America. United Airlines did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives for two other sectors that employ vast numbers of workers who interact with the public and have struggled with staff shortages for months lauded the CDC’s decision.
The Food Industry Association, whose members include major grocers as well as manufacturers, said the revised guidance would help the industry “responsibly address” its labor shortage. The trade group urged “federal, state and local governments to work off the same CDC playbook.”
Stephanie Martz, chief administrative officer of the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, called the change “welcome news.”
Many of the policy experts who had urged the CDC to update its isolation guidelines had argued that a new approach should incorporate rapid tests, as in Britain. In the United States, demand for tests has soared while manufacturers are still scrambling to ramp up production and distribution.
Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, said that testing was necessary because of the vagaries of the coronavirus infection.
“I can’t see how this could go forward without having testing, with assurance of at least a negative rapid antigen test, before circulating,” Topol said. “This goes against the science, and the fact the time it takes for people to clear their virus is quite variable.”