Over the holidays, I experienced how Omicron has significantly changed the rules for Covid-19 for my family and businesses. Two members of my family — both fully vaccinated, and one even boosted — caught Omicron. The former had four days of moderate symptoms, including a splitting headache, a 102-degree fever, was bed-ridden for three days, and felt like she was drowning in mucus. The one with the booster had milder symptoms and no fever.
Our doctor informed us that Omicron is highly contagious and can infect someone in seconds – not the continuous 10 to 15 minutes when indoors as with Delta. Since the rest of the household had been exposed to Omicron for a day before the first family member became symptomatic, she advised us to assume we all had contracted Covid-19 and to quarantine for five days from the first day of exposure. Probably everyone in the US will catch it before it is over, she told us
Wearing masks at this stage in our household was probably more of an annoyance than a help, she advised. Additionally, masks should be worn for five days after the initial five-day quarantine period, even among those who remained asymptomatic. This advise aligns with the new CDC recommended quarantine period, down from 10 days to five days arising out research on how Omicron has a shorter incubation period and the lobbying of industry to allow asymptomatic works to return to work sooner.
The two members of my household recovered and no one else became ill, thankfully.
Our doctor told us that being vaccinated increases a person’s immunity against Omicron by 30 percent. Being boosted increases immunity to about 70 percent and helps prevent serious symptoms, hospitalization, and death, in the event of a breakthrough case. These are much lower numbers than the 94 percent protection from vaccines against Delta.
Hospital case history in December bears out the high contagiousness of Omicron and shows that vaccines and boosters, even though they are not as effective as they were against Delta, still offer significant protection. For example, Yale New Haven Hospital reported in December\ that 90 percent of hospital Covid-19 patients are unvaccinated, which is further evidence that vaccinations (and boosters) prevent serious illness and hospitalization.
Our experience is that the at-home Covid-19 tests are not reliable. One of our household members did not test positive until five days after symptoms and after her fever broke and headache subsided. The latest research indicates that they are accurate, especially if the individual is showing symptoms. The PCR tests are more accurate, but the advice is to wait three days from the first day of symptoms before taking the test.
Our family holiday experience was not alone. Omicron cases are double from a year ago in the US, with 585,013 cases recorded on Dec. 31th. On January 3rd, the new cases topped over one million, as most states posted their backlogs from the New Year’s weekend. At the same time, hospitalizations and death rates are up significantly but are still lower than a year ago. See the chart below from The New York Times and Our World In Data. According to The Wall Street Journal, this record rise of Covid-19 cases has led to thousands of canceled flights and stranded passengers, prompted retailers to train available employees on new jobs, and closed some stores altogether.
With infections surging due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant, physicians are now urging people to ditch cloth face masks, which may not provide enough protection against the virus. Instead, they recommend pairing cloth masks with surgical models or moving on to stronger ones, such as N-95 masks.
The problem, however, is that very few people are wearing facemasks in indoor, public settings. The public is tired of the routine and politicians are tired of enforcing unpopular measures. There is strong evidence that shows that mask mandates work, few states have reinstated their mask mandates of a year ago.
Let’s take stock as to how Omicron differs from Delta, and how it affects business. An employee with Omicron can infect other employees in less than a minute. It is more contagious but less deadly than Delta. However, Omicron the vaccinated and boosted have signficantly less hospitalizations and deaths. Employees exposed to Omicron but asymptomatic need to quarantine for five days and wear masks for at least five days past that when indoors and around people. Home tests are not as accurate as the P.C.R tests, which are less able to detect Omicron. Both types of tests are more accurate at three or more days after the individual is exposed to Omicron.
Omnicron may have one silver lining according to the LA Times. “If an infection with Omicron is unlikely to make a patient severely ill but leaves some immunity in its wake, it could act as a “natural vaccine,” said Dr. Bruce Walker, an immunologist and founding director of the Ragon Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Omicron could be the beginning of the end — but we can’t count on that now because Covid-19 mutates continually. (More on this below).
Obviously, your business can not perform at its peak if your employees are sick or unwittingly infecting each other. Here are three recommendations to take now to prevent an outbreak in your business.
First – Recognize that Covid-19 has gone endemic. It will be a fabric of public health and our economy for some time to come. Covid-19 is a SARs virus, which means it mutates continually, and that the most contagious forms of the new mutations will go viral (literally). Colds and flus are common SARs viruses that constantly mutate, and we have no cures for them. While Omicron may act as a “natural vaccine” for 2022, Covid-19 is always mutating.
According to Dr. Albert Ko, an infections disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health, “The newest [Omicron] variant is a warning about what will continue to happen “unless we really get serious about the endgame. Certainly COVID will be with us forever,” Ko added. “We’re never going to be able to eradicate or eliminate COVID, so we have to identify our goals.”
Second – Take strong immediate action. Require your employees in the office, manufacturing, or serving customers to wear N-95 masks and to socially distant. If your business is in a service industry require customers to wear masks and socially distant.
Next, continue to promote vaccination and boosters among the workforce either through mandates (which work), by paying vaccinated employees a bonus, or raising the premiums on unvaccinated or boosted employees. Today, many health-care plans lower premiums for employees who join their wellness plans that provide health screenings and follow through for addressing identified health issues, such as lowering high blood pressure, reducing obesity, or quitting smoking. Covid-19 should not be treated differently. The average cost of Covid-19 hospitalization is $20,000 to $24,000 and that does not include the cost of lost hours worked and the overtime of other employees to make up for it.
Third – In the long term, move to The Future of Work and implement a permanet hybrid work model. Hybrid working increases productivity and innovation for your workforce more effectively than the standard open office bay layouts of the last decade. And when the next Covid-19 variant arrives, you will have a flexible work model that minimizes employee exposure, illness, and costly treatment. Besides, about 70 percent of employees who worked remotely during 2020 and 2021 want to continue working remotely three to four days a week, and many will quit if not given this opportunity.
The Future of Work is not only a hybrid work model. It also includes digitizing the workflow, upskilling and reskilling the workforce, and improving employee experiences and wellbeing. Moreover, it is time to redesign the office space for the employees who have to come into the office every day due to their job duties and for those who will work remotely and need to come into the office only one- or two-days per week for meetings, training, and celebrations. The Future (really Now) of Work is here to stay. It will improve your ability to retain and attract great employees during the Great Reckoning and have a more productive and innovative workforce. Learn more here.
I hope your holidays were Covid-19 free, and if they weren’t that everyone in your household recovered. Covid-19 is endemic and still a treat to the economy, public health, and to your business. Act now to prevent its spread.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and managing partner of InnovationOne.. He works with companies to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com.