In past columns, I have advised business leaders to take precautions against the next wave of Covid-19. It keeps mutating. Although it appears to be transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic, it can still be epidemic and very dangerous. Covid-19 cases are now low but increasing dramatically in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, parts of Florida, and LA county. Will it spread across the country? How do you keep your workforce safe without causing worker backlash from overly restrictive Covid-19 protocols?
America is Covid-19 weary and tired of wearing masks, booster shots, and school closures. Medical experts have said that the best outcome is for it to be endemic, like other SARS viruses such as the common flu or cold, requiring annual vaccinations, infecting many during flu season but killing few. Pfizer’s executives once predicted Covid-19 could become endemic in 2024. Dr. Fauci has said making predicting about Covid-19 is difficult because there are so many moving variables.
Will it spread across the nation? Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb appearing April 10 on CBS’s Face the Nation, does not believe this will occur but advises that we watch the local community case numbers and hospitalizations. He warns that case numbers are under represented by a factor of seven as many citizens who test positive for Covid-19 with a home test kit do not report positive cases to public health officials.
Scientists in a recent New York Times article believe that endemic Covid-19 could be seasonal, but it could also have irregular and significant epidemic waves. Covid-19 is also much more transmissible than the cold and flu. These scientists warn that we don’t know what the Covid-19 endemic phase will look like. It may take years to understand. The scientists warn that humans have witnessed four influenza pandemics in the last 100 years, in 1918-19, 1920, 1957, and 1968. The 1918-19 pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people globally, dwarfs them all – and was undercounted.
Another example cited in The New York Times article is measles which remained endemic for 40 years after the introduction of widespread vaccines. However, the unvaccinated remained vulnerable fueling occasional outbreaks. In 2019, two decades after the disease was declared eliminated in the United States, several outbreaks, many associated with unvaccinated travelers, infected more than a thousand people.
Covid-19 (such as BA.2) remains a public threat that can cause large numbers of a company’s workforce to become ill and unavailable to work — and to die.
With Covid-19 prevention fatigue, how do companies keep their workforces safe during Covid-19 surges? Here are my recommendations:
No. 1. No masks and sick workers stay home. When Covid-19 is relatively dormant, eliminate the mask requirements. Still encourage sick employees to stay home to keep them in a good habit of not spreading diseases to fellow workers whether it is the flu or Covid-19. At Medtronic, before the Covid-19 pandemic, we ran regular campaigns with the workforce to sneeze into their elbows if they did not have a handkerchief and head home when beginning to feel ill.
No. 2. Hybrid work models. Allow office workers (who can do most of their job duties from home with cell phones and computers) to work from home three to four days a week. The evidence shows that they will be happier, more productive, and with a better work-life balance. The company will have higher productivity and save money from needing less office space, which is costly. Research from 2017 shows that employers can save more than $11,000 per year per remote worker. When Covid-19 is epidemic, tell the office workers to work from home five days a week to be safe. If you are on the fence about how to transition to a hybrid work model, I suggest you read my blog on the topic.
No. 3. Vaccinations. Encourage or require ongoing vaccinations with either medical premium discounts or other incentives. The decision to require or encourage vaccinations will depend on your business and the role of your workers, such as health care or “essential workers.” Many organizations before Covid-19 encouraged flu vaccinations, mammograms, and other cancer screening. Add Covid-19 vaccinations to the list.
The added benefit of having vaccinated employees is that it prevents absenteeism. A multi-institutional study shows that mandatory flu vaccines for healthcare workers improve vaccination rates by as much as 30 percent and reduce absenteeism during critical periods by about six percent. Further, vaccinated healthcare workers had a 30 percent reduction in absenteeism compared to non-vaccinated healthcare workers overall. A 30 percent reduction in absenteeism is nothing to sneeze at.
No. 4. Masks and social distancing. Of course, when Covid-19 spikes in your community, reinstate your requirement to wear masks indoors, wash hands frequently, and be socially distant. Make plans now to have a supply of N-95 masks to hand out to your employees and encourage them to have a supply at home.
No. 5. Ventilation. Ensure your factories, warehouses, and office buildings have excellent ventilation to reduce the spread of Covid-19 indoors. Here are the CDC’s recommendations.
We all want the Covid-19 nightmare of illness and deaths to be over. Sadly, the reality is that Covid-19 continues to plague humans. It keeps mutating. You must be courageous and agile for your continued service to customers, profitability, and employees’ safety. Watch for the signs of Covid-19’s return in your communities and act. Your employees will respect you for it.
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, conduct executive search, 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.