When it comes to living with COVID, businesses are on their own
By Lauren Hirsch
Companies looking for an official rulebook on pandemic precautions will be disappointed. The Biden administration’s nationwide coronavirus vaccine mandate has been overturned. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is facing criticism for its shifting guidance on isolation times. And just as cases surge to record levels, tests are scarce — and may not always be effective.
As the federal government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus hit their limits — as the administration itself admits — employers are largely on their own.
Business leaders must decide whether and how to use tools such as their own vaccine mandates, masking, distancing, and testing at their offices and other work sites. And more fundamentally, they must decide what kind of company they want to run: one that manages cases or one that manages risk.
Managing cases, with a goal of avoiding all infections at the workplace, has been the approach of many companies thus far. This zero-COVID strategy treats the pandemic as an acute, emergency situation that requires upending business as usual. That might mean telling employees to work remotely indefinitely, with strict rules for those who come into the office.
But some experts believe that the omicron surge could peak this month. That could allow for a relatively safe return to workplaces as soon as February, given the bolstered immunity of the millions who have been vaccinated and recovered from infections. (It may not work out that way, of course: An alternative pandemic path is “it gets worse,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and a former White House adviser, “which would be a disaster.”)
If the optimistic forecast pans out, it will make managing risk — not cases — a more viable option for employers who want to bring employees physically back together. Managing risk would require investment in a “new normal” of living with the virus for a long time, echoing a national strategy that a group of former White House health advisers, including Emanuel, recently recommended to the Biden administration.
What does running a business mean if you’re expecting COVID to be forever?
“You run it like you’re running it with a flu,” Emanuel said — but with some improvements.
How to Live (and Work) With COVID
Living with COVID does not mean ignoring COVID. It means working to prevent the worst outcomes.
Vaccines reduce deaths and hospitalizations. And although some states, like Florida and Montana, have passed laws restricting employer vaccine mandates, experts say requiring employees to be vaccinated is one of the most effective ways businesses can create a safer workplace.
United Airlines said last week that it had gone eight straight weeks without COVID-related deaths among its vaccinated employees, despite the surging omicron variant of the virus. Before its mandate, it averaged one death per week.
Booster shots are essential to boosting immunity — even if the CDC does not update its definition of fully vaccinated beyond two doses of an mRNA vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Some companies already require boosters for office entry, like Facebook’s parent, Meta, and Blackstone.
Beyond vaccinations, health experts say that investing in upgraded ventilation is one of the most important things that companies can do to prevent airborne illnesses — whether COVID or the flu.
Paid sick leave to allow for sufficient isolation time will continue to be vital. Ideally, companies would provide up to 10 days of paid sick leave, with more available if a state or national public-health emergency is declared, said David Michaels, a public health researcher and a former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. With COVID, the best isolation policy for most workers would allow them to return to the office after five days as long as they had a negative result on a rapid test and continued to wear a mask through Day 10, Michaels said.
Managing COVID is politically fraught. There is likely to be backlash if companies change course.
It’s easiest to live with COVID if you have fundamental protections like a vaccine mandate in place. Those may be harder to put into effect in industries struggling with labor shortages and in places where local regulations discourage them.
Some employees may simply not want to return — and maybe you can’t make them. “Employees are stressed, more so than they’ve ever been in the past,” said Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director at the American Psychological Association. “They are willing to leave jobs if it does not serve their needs.”
Approaches to returning to a normal workplace that manage risk — instead of trying to eliminate all cases — do not always take into account economic and health inequities. Immunocompromised employees may decide they do not feel comfortable in an office without a mandatory mask policy, which may put them more at risk than their colleagues.
And company leadership, employees, unions and other stakeholders may not all agree.
In December, Delta Air Lines updated its policies on isolation almost immediately after the CDC reduced its recommendation to five days, from 10. A fight over the policy between the airline and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — which is trying to unionize the airline — has resulted in a cease-and-desist order.
For some, these trade-offs may not be worth it. Primarily digital companies like Robinhood, which recently told employees that they can work from home forever, can easily work remotely, while those like General Motors do not have that choice. A broad spectrum of strategies is inevitable.
Over the past several months, executives have asked the Biden administration for clarity on the goal for managing COVID. Now, it’s time for companies to set their own.