The pandemic has shaken up public health, but it also has shifted workplace structures and practices. Today, employers now navigate a tight labor market while trying to keep current staff happy and productive. All of this comes as hot debates around vaccine mandates continue and the Delta variant surges.
For employers, figuring out how to keep employees safe, productive and happy may have never been more complex. But one thing is certain: Health and safety is still at the center of all these conversations. If you’re an employer, here are five things to keep in mind during these unique times.
1. CONTAGIOUSNESS OF THE VARIANT
The Delta variant’s genetic code has morphed enough to give it a significant advantage that allows it to more easily jump from one person to the next. In fact, it’s about three times more transmissible, and comes with a much higher viral load, than the alpha version. The Delta variant is also showing more asymptomatic cases, which could only make increased spread more of an issue.
Above all, what we do know is that the Delta variant is a disease of the unvaccinated, and encouraging vaccination is the best defense. Consider offering schedule flexibility for employees so that they can get their shot. And if you’re a larger employer with the means, you can organize an event where the vaccines are given on site.
2. YOUR WORKPLACE IS A ‘MICRO’ HERD
We hear the term “herd immunity” a lot; and for a long time, many of us felt that if about 75 percent of us received the vaccine, COVID-19 would go away. Now, we’ve learned that getting those vaccines took a little too long, but they are still the best defense against the new variant.
As an employer, consider your workplace a “micro herd.” Are at least three-fourths of your employees vaccinated? What will it take to get to that percentage? If you’re not sure if you want to mandate vaccines, find ways to encourage it. And for those who cannot or will not, incorporate efforts for testing, remote work options, and take input from them about options that can keep them safe. In fact, it’s important they understand safety is the goal, above all.
3. MITIGATION EFFORTS STILL MATTER
They may seem like an inconvenience right now, but strategies like distancing, masks, remote work, hygiene encouragement and improving ventilation are still just as important as ever. Even though the public guidelines now vary state to state on this issue, it’s still a good idea to have teams who work together wear masks or have barriers between them. And don’t throw out those hand sanitizers just yet.
4. EXPECT BREAKTHROUGH CASES
Breakthrough cases are occurring, but vaccine efficacy is still very good. You’re still getting 70 percent to 80 percent protection, if vaccinated. That’s down from the 95 percent with the alpha strain, but vaccines still provide good protection and prevent considerable death and severe illness.
You will see and hear of more breakthrough cases, especially as more people are vaccinated. It’s important to remember that the vaccines were never touted to be 100 percent effective. Don’t get caught up in the hype that may occur around breakthroughs. Stick with the facts from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other reputable sources, and don’t let this conversation create tension in the workplace. The number of breakthrough cases is still very low, and the medical community expected them.
5. KEEP A LONG-TERM PERSPECTIVE
Unfortunately, the likelihood of zero COVID-19 in the near future is very slim. I actually expect that we will see boosters become available to a wider population range soon. Again, this is not a failure of the current vaccines. The polio vaccine, for example, requires five doses to get the maximum immunity needed.
We’ve learned that after six months, antibodies drop. We are also evaluating T-cell activity, which potentially summons back immune responses, when needed. Decisions about how many vaccines are needed will take time and more data needs to be properly evaluated.
There’s also the likelihood of another variant showing up as well. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future COVID-19 vaccine look similar to the annual flu shot, which covers multiple strains and variants.
In the meantime, it’s important to stay the course with good workplace health and safety practices, all while promoting vaccination, which is still the best defense against the Delta variant. You may need to dismiss thoughts of COVID-19 ending soon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a safe, productive workplace in the meantime.
Jonathan Baktari, M.D., is the CEO of e7 Health in Las Vegas. He is a vaccine, Covid-19, and pulmonary and critical care expert. To learn more, visit baktarimd.com.