Dealing with COVID-19 in the workplace: Planning for employee safety and outbreak prevention
Now that COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, most Americans are joyfully returning to some level of normalcy. Yet infectious disease experts tell us that the U.S. population may not reach a “herd immunity” that allows us to operate “normally.” As of August 9 data, only 58.8% of Americans have received at least one shot, and the rate of new vaccinations is just beginning to increase after dramatically dropping in June. Business leaders are left questioning what to do about the other half (25%-75%) of their workforce that both remain at risk themselves and constitute a risk to the vaccinated vulnerable among their peers.
How to bring employees back to work safely
During the pandemic many businesses were able to pivot to remote work thanks to digital solutions or personal protection measures (e.g. household delivery, internet installation) to keep their workforce safe. Others in construction, manufacturing and retail didn’t have that option.
Now that we do have vaccines, everyday more and more large companies are requiring vaccination among their eligible workforce. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has given a federal green light to require vaccination as a condition of employment provided there is no discrimination due to underlying disability or religious belief.
Mask wearing and vaccination rates vary greatly across our states and among communities within those states. Mandates, state-by-state and locally, are lifting at different rates across the US just as employers are ramping up in-person activities. The unvaccinated are asked to continue to wear masks for their own and their colleagues’ safety as more transmissible variants emerge, but many will not comply, and there is no way to selectively enforce this rule.
Consider the complexity of a manufacturing plant or warehouse in one of the states with a low local vaccination rate: Taking a firm line to monitor vaccine status and require distancing and masks from the unvaccinated risks resignations and workplace disruption. On the other hand, if no steps are taken, an unpredictable local outbreak among the unvaccinated staff requiring quarantine is highly likely at some point.
How to navigate this tightrope? Frequent, while-you-wait COVID-19 testing programs in workplaces, schools, and travel hubs.
Routine rapid testing for COVID-19 in the workplace is one of the best ways for employers to maintain a safe and open office environment for all employees. Six months ago, testing was a challenge, but scarcity of tests is no longer an issue. There is more guidance at this point and test prices are starting to fall.
COVID-19 testing programs: A strategic approach to safety
As vaccination status within a workplace evolves and mask wearing is less rigorous, a routine testing program is the last tool in the toolbox to prevent or minimize a disruptive and tragic COVID-19 outbreak. WhenToTest.org was launched in 2020 with the sole purpose of helping organizations build an effective and cost-efficient testing program. The website provides science-based facts to build and justify proper mitigation and testing strategies, which will identify and mitigate the impact of a hotspot emerging in any congregate setting. It is built in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health’s RADx Tech initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology (CIMIT).
WhenToTest.org includes detailed testing implementation guides for schools and businesses. Additionally, the website’s calculator tool takes five basic inputs to determine the most appropriate testing strategy (individual or pooled), test type (antigen or PCR/molecular), location (onsite or offsite), and frequency (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly). Outputs include estimated cost per week for each solution.
The site collaborates with Project N95 and Arizona State University to create “Connect to Test,” an online tool that enables smaller organizations to find and purchase testing solutions at fair prices.
Testing implementation is complex, and there are multiple considerations, including access to tests, PPE, CLIA Licensing, prescriptions, access to end-to-end solutions, purchase requirements and reporting,” says Mara Aspinall, professor of practice, Arizona State University. “The shared goal of When to Test and its collaborators is to provide support to address all aspects of COVID-19 testing in non-healthcare environments.
Even if an employer is mandating 100% vaccination as a condition of presence in the workplace, a testing program can help to keep employees and visitors safe as businesses reopen.