The Delta variant: How companies should respond

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By Jeff Levin-Scherz & Patricia Toro

The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 is causing infections and hospitalizations to rise again in the United States, even in communities with high vaccination rates.

Hopes that the pandemic would soon fade away have been dimmed by the spread of the variant, which appears to evade at least some of the immunity conferred by a past infection or vaccination.

And with low global vaccination rates, there are likely to be new variants that could be even more threatening. Consequently, we can expect sporadic cases and periodic outbreaks of Covid-19 in the months and years ahead. Given this prospect, how can employers fulfill their difficult obligation to protect their workers, customers and communities while continuing to grow and prosper?

By being creative, flexible and adaptive in their approaches, leaders can contain the threat now and handle other outbreaks as they arise. Here are some broad measures they can apply:

  • Encourage vaccination: Vaccination remains the best way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death from Covid-19, and many employers have been encouraging their workers to get vaccinated. Communication is most effective when it draws attention to short-term benefits and incorporates stories; statistics on their own are much less compelling. Communication should be culturally appropriate: Diverse influencers can help spread the word on the importance of vaccination throughout the workforce.
  • Weigh whether to mandate vaccination: The Delta variant has increased employer interest in mandates that require workers be vaccinated to perform their jobs on site. About 6% of Americans say they will only get vaccinated if it is required. Houston Methodist, an academic medical center comprising eight hospitals in Houston, offers guidelines that could prove helpful to employers currently considering vaccination mandates.
  • Consider local transmission rates: The risk of workplace Covid-19 transmission is highly correlated with the community infection rate. Businesses can feel comfortable about having their remote workers return to their facilities in many communities where the current weekly infection rate is low (less than 10 per 100,000). However, in communities with weekly infection rates that exceed 50 per 100,000 the likelihood that an employee will bring Covid-19 into the workplace is very high.
  • Reduce exposure through social distancing: Flexible schedules and remote work have helped create adequate social distancing. Moreover, employers are transitioning remote employees back to the workplace gradually or on a staggered basis to increase safety as they adopt new ways of working. Employers can use behavioral economics techniques to “nudge” employees to maintain social distancing in the workplace. If the capacity of a conference room is two people, be sure there are only two chairs in it!
  • Improve ventilation: Ventilation in a building affects transmission, and increasing the amount of air that’s exchanged indoors decreases the likelihood of infection in the workplace. Improving ventilation doesn’t always require expensive renovations; employers could choose to open windows in the office, add more air exchanges and improve the filtration systems on existing air-handling systems.
  • Decide when to recommend or require masks: Masks provide protection against both being infected with Covid-19 and infecting others. More and more localities are reinstituting universal indoor masking. We expect mask mandates to expand with increased infection rates. Employers can avoid complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act about masking requirements by abiding by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidelines.
  • Encourage testing: While few employers were performing Covid-19 screenings last spring, many will take another look at this tool as the Delta variant continues to spread. Antigen tests are now readily available, and the cost is modest. Employers can instruct employees to test themselves at home and can arrange follow-up confirmatory tests for those who have no symptoms but are positive. And the golden rule about sickness in the workplace still holds true: All employees should be instructed not to come to work if they feel ill.
  • Be cautious about reinstituting travel: Most companies eliminated international business travel earlier in the pandemic, and many curtailed domestic trips as well. The more contagious variants mean that leaders should err on the side of caution in allowing employees to travel to places where risks of Covid-19 infection are fairly high. In those instances, business meetings should be conducted by videoconference.
  • Communicate exposures: Many workplaces will experience Covid-19 cases over the coming months. Employers should honestly communicate about exposures in given facilities, while respecting the medical privacy of employees who have reported that they have caught the virus.
  • Support mental health care: Attending to your employees’ mental health needs will be even more important in the coming months. Rates of depression and anxiety have surged during the pandemic, and last year saw the largest number of drug overdose deaths ever in the US. Many are mourning the deaths of friends and loved ones. Employers can continue offering access to virtual and digital mental health care, although they should take into account the fact that scientific evidence of the effectiveness of many digital mental health apps is still limited.
  • Stay current on the effectiveness of interventions: Last, we recommend that businesses keep up to date on which interventions are effective in limiting the spread of Covid-19 and which ones have limited value. For example, 60% of businesses we surveyed in May reported that they were conducting temperature screenings when employees entered the workplace, and only a third of these intended to remove the practice in the coming months—even though temperature screening has been proved to be ineffective in decreasing workplace transmission. We also now know that normal cleaning is adequate to protect against Covid-19 infections in most instances, and disinfection can be reserved for high-touch, high-traffic surfaces and workplaces with a known Covid-19 case. Employers can create more bandwidth for effective pandemic or business initiatives by eliminating those which minimally increase safety.

Covid-19 has been a humanitarian tragedy and has upended business plans across the globe. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not going to end soon. Employers and their workers must continue to remain nimble in how they cope with it. As the local situation dictates, employers must remain vigilant and implement existing and new processes that are proven to keep employees, customers and communities safe while meeting organizational needs.

Jeff Levin-Scherz is an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Patricia Toro is a senior director in the Health Management Practice of Willis Towers Watson.

Image courtesy of WWW.FREEPIK.COM

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