The widespread availability of the Pfizer vaccine to all adults ages 16 and up is opening the door for many business leaders to consider a partial or full return of employees to the workplace. Before you make the decision to return to business as usual, however, there are some realities to take into account about where we are now in the pandemic and smart practices that can maximize the potential for a complete and safe return of remote employees.
As of early April, the CDC data tracker shows that 175 vaccines have been administered in the US. Nearly 38% of the population has received one dose and nearly 20% is fully vaccinated. The Biden administration has announced its aim to get all Americans eligible for vaccinations by May 1 and to get the nation “closer to normal” by July 4.
Though the success of the vaccine program has helped to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and many of those at high risk for serious health consequences have been vaccinated, new variants are proliferating. Scientists do not yet completely understand how effective vaccines are against these mutations, but early indications are the variants spread more easily from person to person than the original strains in the US.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has recently cautioned that the number of new cases per day has been on a steady and disturbing plateau. On April 7, there were 63,000 new cases and Fauci warns that now is not the time to declare victory prematurely because we are in a race between vaccinations and the surge. When asked about reaching herd immunity with a specific percentage of the population, Fauci spoke about how that number is elusive and must also take into account how many people have had the virus, which strains they have had, and as yet unknown details about immunity to variants.
There is still much to be done before we reach herd immunity, but progress is happening quickly. So as employers, how do we act on the information we have been receiving? The CDC recently advised that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing masks or physically distancing. They may also gather with a small group, such as coworkers, even if that group has not been vaccinated. Those who haven’t been vaccinated are advised to continue to minimize the number of people they are in physical contact with, and to wear masks in public.
Chances are likely that roughly half of your employees have either been vaccinated or have some degree of immunity from having contracted and recovered from COVID-19. With this in mind, here are some key safety considerations for gradually returning employees and visitors to your workplace:
- Return in staggered phases: Some of your employees can only work effectively in the workplace and roughly half are immune to COVID-19 to some degree. Bring these two groups back to work first, then stagger the rest according to vaccinations and need to be in the workplace in order to execute their roles. If an employee lives in a community with a high current transmission rates or in an immune-compromised household, extend their ability to work from home.
- Encourage vaccinations: Vaccines will soon be delivered directly to up to 700 community health centers, and the number of pharmacies and community vaccination centers operating is set to double. Promote the availability of vaccines in your local area and the eligibility criteria as they are announced to percentage of employees who can safely gather without masks or physically distancing.
- Pre-screen employees and visitors: If you can prevent sick people and carriers from putting others at risk, you are taking the most important step in ensuring a safe workplace. Consider having someone check temperatures at the door and turning away employees running a fever. Ask all employees to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms including body aches, a fever over 100 degrees, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of taste or smell.
- Make face masks mandatory for all employees and visitors, including those who are vaccinated, since the findings on whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus are still unclear. Keep spare face masks on hand and educate employees on the proper way to wear and handle masks. Insist on proper mask wearing, including the covering of noses!
- Promote physical distancing by not holding meetings in closed rooms, if possible. Use open spaces instead. If this isn’t possible, use the largest possible rooms for in-person meetings and limit the number of attendees to only those that must be present. Consider holding virtual meetings or hybrid virtual/present meetings.
- Seek emergency medical attention for anyone in your workplace exhibiting sudden signs of trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; or pale gray or blue colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone.
- Routinely sanitize and disinfect the workplace, carefully following these CDC guidelines for the materials to use, surfaces to clean, and frequency of cleaning.
- Adjust your floor plan to reduce congestion and the potential for face-to-face contact as people pass one another. Consider using tape to mark areas where people can walk to ensure that there are six feet of width between people as they pass one another, especially in intersections. If there are areas where congestion or face-to-face contact is almost impossible to avoid, use partitions to reduce the potential for viral transmission.
- Post signage reminding workers of proper protocols including individual mask wearing, handwashing, avoiding hand shaking, not sharing objects, and other hygienic practices.
- Be ready to adjust your protocols and plans as the situation changes. While it is highly likely the pandemic will continue to subside as more people are vaccinated, there is a possibility that COVID-19 variants could complicate the situation. Be prepared to reverse course and let your workers return to remote work temporarily, as necessary.
Many DFW employers are successfully returning employees to the office by following these best practices. Keep in mind, this is a fluid situation, especially with new variants becoming the dominant strains both locally and nationally. Prepare to be nimble and adjust accordingly over the next few months and soon we’ll all be looking back on our collective success in overcoming the nation’s worst pandemic in more than 100 years.