When it comes to living with Covid, companies are on their own


Companies looking for an official rulebook on pandemic precautions will be disappointed. The Biden administration’s nationwide mandate to vaccinate against the coronavirus has been overturned. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been criticized for changing isolation times guidelines. And just as cases rise to record levels, tests are scarce — and may not always be effective.

As the federal government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus reach their limits – as the administration itself admits – employers are largely alone.

Business leaders must decide whether and how to use tools such as their own vaccine mandates, masking, distancing and testing in their offices and other workplaces. And more fundamentally, they have to decide what kind of business they want to run: one that manages business or one that manages risk.

Treating cases, with the goal of preventing all workplace infections, has been the approach of many companies until now. This zero-Covid strategy treats the pandemic as an acute emergency that requires the usual course of action. That might mean telling employees to work remotely indefinitely, with strict rules for those who come into the office.

But some experts believe the Omicron peak could peak this month. That could allow for a relatively safe return to the workplace as early as February, given the boosted immunity of the millions who have been vaccinated and recovered from infection. (It can’t work like this, of course: An alternate pandemic path is “it’s getting worse,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and former White House adviser, “which would be a disaster.”

If the optimistic forecast comes true, managing risks — not cases — will become a more viable option for employers looking to physically reunite workers. Managing risks would require investing in a “new normal” for long-term living with the virus, following a national strategy that a group of former White House health advisers, including Dr. Emanuel, recently recommended to the Biden administration.

What does running a business mean when you expect Covid to be forever?

“You run it like you’re running it with a flu,” said Dr. Emanuel – but with some improvements.

Living with Covid does not mean ignoring Covid. It means working to avoid the worst results.

Vaccines reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations. And while some states, such as Florida and Montana, have passed laws limiting employers’ vaccine mandates, experts say requiring employees to be vaccinated is one of the most effective ways companies can create a safer workplace.

United Airlines said this week it had gone eight straight weeks with no Covid-related deaths among its vaccinated employees, despite the rising Omicron strain of the virus. Before her mandate, there was an average of one death per week.

Booster shots are essential for boosting immunity — even if the CDC doesn’t update its definition of fully vaccinated after two doses of an mRNA vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Some companies already need boosters for office access, such as Facebook’s parent company Meta and Blackstone.

In addition to vaccinations, health experts say investing in improved ventilation is one of the most important things companies can do to prevent airborne illness – be it Covid or the flu.

Paid sick leave to allow adequate isolation time remains essential. Ideally, companies would offer up to 10 days of paid sick leave, with more available if a state or national public health emergency is declared, said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and former chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. With Covid, the best isolation policy for most workers would allow them to return to the office after five days, as long as they had a negative result on a rapid test and continued to wear a mask until day 10, said Dr. michaels.

Once the Omicron peak subsides, other guardrails may be less necessary.

“If you’ve mandated vaccines, encouraged boosters, have good ventilation and filtration — great, you did what you needed to do to avoid the worst outcomes,” said Joseph Allen, a Harvard professor of public health who advises companies. about their Covid policy

It is then “reasonable”, he thinks, to say: “We are not going to condense. We’re not going to put stickers on the floor before you get in the elevator. We’re not going to make you wear a mask all day, every day.”

Frequent testing during the Omicron peak is essential to understand its scope and control its spread, but it is unlikely that such testing will be needed in the future, said Dr. all. He envisions that employers will eventually only use tests if employees have symptoms or want to return after being infected.

Managing Covid is politically charged. There is likely to be a backlash if companies change course.

It is easiest to live with Covid if you have basic protections, such as a vaccine mandate. It can be more difficult to apply in industries that suffer from labor shortages and where local regulations discourage them.

Some employees may just not want to return – and you may not be able to make them. “Workers are stressed more than ever in the past,” said Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director at the American Psychological Association. “They are willing to quit their job if it doesn’t meet their needs.”

Approaches to return to a normal workplace that manages risks – rather than trying to rule out all cases – do not always take economic and health inequalities into account. Immunocompromised employees may decide they are uncomfortable in an office without a mandatory mask policy, putting them at greater risk than their colleagues.

And management, employees, unions and other stakeholders may not all agree.

In December, Delta Air Lines updated its isolation policy almost immediately after the CDC reduced its recommendation to five days, from 10. A policy dispute between the airline and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — which is trying to unify the airline — resulted in a cease and desist order.

For some, these tradeoffs may not be worth it. In particular, digital companies like Robinhood, which recently told employees they can work from home forever, can easily work remotely, while companies like General Motors don’t have that choice. A broad spectrum of strategies is inevitable.

In recent months, executives have asked the Biden administration for clarity on the purpose of covid management. Now is the time for companies to define their own.

What do you think? Will companies soon be treating Covid more like the flu? What will the ‘new normal’ in workplaces look like when they open up fully? Let us know: dealbook@nytimes.com.

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