It has been a rough start of the year for the populace, facing huge surges in COVID-19 cases while, trying to make sense of confusing pronouncements by government health departments. To provide guidance to our clients and employees, I spoke this morning with Dr. David Nabarro, special envoy for the World Health Organization and longtime UN health expert. Here is his advice:
Return to Office—The Omicron variant is just starting its journey. We have no way to tell how it ends. It could be a single surge or a succession of surges that come within weeks of each other. Home working is being reintroduced in parts of Europe. He indicates that it is important to watch the data and drive decisions on returning to work with the best data possible. He anticipates that it could be a month or two before most firms will be able to plan for a return to office.
Travel—Compared with earlier variants Omicron is deeply contagious. It is better at getting past the shield of vaccine protection. Employers should help to minimize contacts between people by restricting travel to essential trips. Do not plan in-person events in the coming three months at least.
Future Events—Where the vaccination rate is high and disease incidence is low it should be feasible to have unrestricted events. Again, that will not be for several weeks in North America. In places with low vaccination rates the delay will be longer.
Mandatory Vaccination—The decision as to whether to be vaccinated is usually deeply personal: it has now become a political issue. In companies, employers should incentivize employees to be vaccinated and ensure that worker representatives are fully involved. Dr. Nabarro says: “The virus is the problem and people are the solution.”
Isolation Period—Countries are looking to shorten the 10-day isolation period for people with COVID-19. This is due to the need to deal with the staff shortages in hospitals, institutions, logistics and more. Does it justify the risk that some will be infectious when they return? WHO guidelines are that people who feel unwell should stay at home and self-isolate for 10 days from symptom onset plus three days after symptoms cease. The impact of shortened isolation should be carefully monitored.
Masks—Masking is critical. It is one of the frontline measures for limiting the spread of COVID-19. The WHO issued new recommendations three weeks ago. Get rid of the cloth masks in favor of surgical masks. Reserve N95 for healthcare personnel or front-line workers at airports or similar jobs. Guidelines are available here and here.
Rapid Tests—PCR test services, the gold standard system, are burdened by high demand. The shift to Rapid Tests is inevitable and will become the new standard, even as their shortcomings are being addressed.
Communications—The employer must pick up the pace of outreach to employees. It is not easy: Omicron is a month old, and the situation is changing fast. It is inevitable that guidance from governments will change and may be contested in the media and by politicians. He would encourage each company to produce a weekly bulletin, with a place for employee comment or questions that prompts expert commentary by the company chief health officer and reactions from the CEO.
Living with the Virus—This is different from doing nothing. To live with the virus people need to know where it is and what it is doing. There needs to be a clear plan for responding to surges. As the number of cases starts to increase, most authorities will expect to react quickly by encouraging universal mask wearing and introducing local restrictions on people’s movements. Nobody should be given a false sense of security.
Everybody is tired and frustrated. However, this COVID situation is likely to remain quite messy for the next few weeks. We must depoliticize the story by talking about it: this means giving employees a place to vent, offering them expert advice from multiple sources. By encouraging dialogue, companies play a vital role in stabilizing the situation. Let’s roll.
Richard Edelman is CEO.