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When It Comes to Living With Covid, Businesses Are on Their Own

Companies looking for official regulations on pandemic precautions will be disappointed. The Biden administration’s national coronavirus vaccine mandate has been rescinded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are under fire for their changing guidance on isolation times. And just as cases are reaching record highs, testing is rare – and may not always be effective.

As the federal government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus reach their limits — as the administration itself admits — employers are largely alone.

Business leaders must decide if and how to use tools such as their own vaccination mandates, masking, distancing and testing in their offices and other workplaces. And more fundamentally, they have to decide what kind of business they want to run: one that manages records or one that manages risk.

Case management, with the aim of avoiding all infections in the workplace, has been the approach of many companies so far. This zero-Covid strategy treats the pandemic as an acute emergency that requires disrupting business as usual. This could mean telling employees to work remotely indefinitely, with strict rules for those who come into the office.

But some experts think Omicron’s surge could peak this month. This could allow for a relatively safe return to workplaces from February, given the enhanced immunity of the millions of people who have been vaccinated and cured of infections. (It may not work that way, of course: another pandemic pathway is “it gets worse,” said oncologist and former White House adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, “which would be a disaster.”)

If the rosy forecast comes to fruition, it will make managing risk — not case — a more viable option for employers who want to physically bring employees together. Managing the risk would require investing 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 Dr Emanuel, recently recommended to the Biden administration.

What does it mean to run a business if you expect Covid to be forever?

“You run it like you’re using it with the flu,” said Dr. Emanuel – but with some enhancements.

Living with Covid does not mean ignoring Covid. It means working to avoid the worst outcomes.

Vaccines reduce deaths and hospitalizations. And while some states, like Florida and Montana, have passed laws restricting employer vaccination mandates, experts say requiring employees to be vaccinated is one of the most effective ways businesses to create a safer workplace.

United Airlines said this week it had gone eight consecutive weeks without Covid-related deaths among its vaccinated employees, despite the rise of the Omicron variant of the virus. Before his mandate, he averaged one death per week.

Booster shots are essential for boosting immunity — even though 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 need desktop entry boosters, like Facebook’s parent company Meta and Blackstone.

Beyond vaccinations, health experts say investing in improved ventilation is one of the most important things businesses can do to prevent airborne diseases, whether Covid or flu.

Paid sick leave to allow for a sufficient period of isolation will continue to be essential. Ideally, companies would grant up to 10 days of paid sick leave, with more if a state or national public health emergency is declared, said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and 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 tested negative on a rapid test and continued to wear a mask until day 10, said the Dr Michaels.

Once the Omicron surge subsides, other safeguards may become less necessary.

“If you’ve mandated vaccines, encouraged boosters, had good ventilation and filtration — amazing, you’ve done what you need to do to avoid the worst outcomes,” said Joseph Allen, a Harvard public health professor who advises companies on their Covid policies

It is then “reasonable”, he believes, to say: “We are not going to de-densify. We are not going to leave stickers on the floor before you enter the elevator. We’re not going to make you wear a mask all day, every day.

Frequent testing during Omicron’s surge is key to understanding its reach and controlling its spread, but such testing is unlikely to be needed in the future, Dr Allen said. He envisions employers ultimately only using the tests when workers show symptoms or want to return after being infected.

The management of Covid is politically tense. There will likely be a backlash if companies change course.

Living with Covid is easier if you have basic protections in place like a vaccination mandate. These may be more difficult to implement in industries struggling with labor shortages and in places where local regulations discourage them.

Some employees may just not want to come back – and maybe you can’t. “Employees are stressed, more than they have ever been in the past,” said Vaile Wright, clinical psychologist and senior director of the American Psychological Association. “They’re willing to quit their job if it doesn’t meet their needs.”

Return-to-workplace-normal approaches that manage risk — instead of trying to eliminate all cases — don’t always take economic and health inequalities into account. Immunocompromised employees may decide they don’t feel comfortable in an office without a mandatory mask policy, which may put them at greater risk than their colleagues.

And company management, employees, unions and other stakeholders may not all agree.

In December, Delta Air Lines updated its isolation policies almost immediately after the CDC reduced its recommendation to five days from 10. A row over the policy between the airline and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA – which is trying to unionize the airline – resulted in a cease and desist order.

For some, these trade-offs may not be worth it. Digital-first companies like Robinhood, which recently told employees they can work from home forever, can easily work remotely, while those like General Motors don’t have that choice. A wide range of strategies is inevitable.

Over the past few months, leaders have asked the Biden administration for clarification on the purpose of managing Covid. Now is the time for companies to set their own.

What do you think? Will companies soon treat Covid more like the flu? What will the ‘new normal’ look like for workplaces when they fully reopen? Let us know: [email protected]

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