As COVID-19 prevalence continues to grow in many U.S. communities, we discussed the current environment with Rob Califf, Head of Clinical Policy & Strategy at Verily, and Vivian Lee, President of Health Platforms at Verily and author of The Long Fix, Solving America's Health Care Crisis with Strategies that Work for Everyone.
Q: What factors go into determining whether it is safe to bring employees back to a workplace environment?
Our models (published in PLOS-ONE) show that three key factors have the biggest impact on the safety of the workplace environment and would affect my thinking.
- What’s happening in the community? If there’s a major COVID-19 outbreak in the community and the relevant variant is highly infectious like the Omicron variant, then no matter what you do in the workplace, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
- What is the working environment like? Do people have to work in close proximity? Are they able to practice safety measures (masking, handwashing, and the like)? Is there a testing program that can identify people who may be infectious even if they don’t have symptoms?
- How vulnerable are the people at work? Are most people vaccinated? Boosted? Our study shows that with the right safety precautions, a regular testing program, and high levels of vaccination, most employers can bring their employees safely back to work.
Q: How are recent COVID-19 mutations like the Omicron variant impacting vaccinated employees?
The Omicron variant contains mutations that allow it to infect vaccinated individuals more easily than prior strains of the virus. However, vaccinated individuals are by and large experiencing milder symptoms. Vaccination remains strongly protective against severe disease and death. For people around them who may not be vaccinated, it’s important to realize that even though they aren’t that sick, vaccinated people who get COVID-19 can still have high viral loads and infect other people.
The bottom line is that vaccinated employees need to use the same precautions (including getting tested regularly, even if they are feeling well) as unvaccinated or immunocompromised individuals during this period of the wave of infections with the Omicron variant.
Data shows third doses are providing stronger protection against Omicron. Vaccinated employees should receive a third vaccine dose (booster) to maximize protection.
Q: How do we expect the Supreme Court decision on the White House mandate for employer COVID-19 testing and vaccine verification to impact the COVID-19 landscape?
COVID-19 transmission remains high in the U.S., and companies will still need to develop strategies for keeping their workforce healthy. The data are clear that vaccinated employees are much more protected from developing a serious illness with COVID-19 than their unvaccinated counterparts. But because they can still get infected and, importantly, still transmit to others, we have to maintain the same level of vigilance in the workplace to protect everyone. We have spoken to many companies about the Verily Healthy at Work program, which provides the tools, testing, and analytics to track and monitor COVID-19 for employers. Many companies already have robust plans in place, and some are just starting to figure it out. The Omicron variant should accelerate every employer's efforts to build out a detailed plan for vaccination management and COVID-19 testing.
Q: This will be a big hill to climb for some employers who are starting from scratch. What do you recommend to companies just getting started with building their return to office plan?
My advice is to get help. Companies like ours who have been supporting businesses through the pandemic have a wealth of experience about returning to work. Before committing to a plan, ask for an assessment. At Verily, our Healthy at Work team can provide an evaluation of the potential risks and offer tips on how to think about the return to office plan. We’ve participated in a number of industry-specific webinars and discussions, as well. Learning from colleagues who are working in similar environments can also be really helpful.
Q: Some companies may have a partial solution. How can companies ensure they have a complete solution for keeping their employees safe?
We learned early on that most employers have at least addressed some of the return to work needs by now, whether it’s using a simple online symptom tracker or having a vaccine record-keeping system, putting into place workplace safety policies, or COVID-19 testing programs. That’s why at Verily we made our Healthy at Work product modular–so that employers who have gaps can fill them with components they need. For example, some employers who work with us have us carry out their COVID-19 testing because we offer such a wide range of flexible options. Spanning from on-site testing (managing that first return to work week, for example) to mail home kits and other options. Others just need the vaccine tracking feature. Regardless of who provides the features, every employer needs to be sure they have carefully considered the three main components–that they understand what’s happening in their worksite and communities in terms of COVID-19 outbreaks, that they have strong worksite safety, including testing options, and that they understand vulnerabilities to COVID-19 among their workforce.
Q: Where can a business find out information about the community prevalence for COVID-19 in their area?
Rob: The New York Times has an excellent update on every county in the U.S. Most counties also have their own reporting systems that can be highly detailed.
Vivian: We use these and other data as part of our Healthy at Work product to keep employers updated about the rates of COVID-19 in the counties that they have their businesses.
With the current state of the pandemic in the United States, COVID-19 will be part of our world for the foreseeable future. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to returning to work. Each business needs to discern what their personal risk tolerance is and build their plan based on where their threshold falls.
If you or your team needs guidance in building out your strategy and understanding what factors you need to consider for returning to the office, our team of epidemiologists, clinicians, and researchers has been working to help employers and universities bring individuals back to shared spaces safely. Healthy at Work has conducted nearly two million tests across Fortune 500 companies and leading universities.
Now, we’ve assembled considerations and guidance for navigating the dynamic COVID-19 environment. Learn how to customize return to office and school for your population in our new whitepaper, “Best practices for bringing employees and students safely back to in-person activities.”
You will get insights on:
- Customizing return to office for your population
- Designing your testing and vaccine tracking strategy
- Enhancing safety while managing cost
Download the whitepaper to learn more.