We all hoped life would start to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. If the infection rate had declined on a consistent downward trajectory, it would have provided optimism for an eventual return to a pre-pandemic world. Then BA.5 happened. Hospitalizations have doubled since May and are up in all but four states. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BA.5 accounted for approximately 78% of new cases for the week ending July 16. Peter Jay Hotez, MD, PhD dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said to CNN that including an estimate of unreported cases, “We’re looking at probably close to a million new cases a day. This is a full-on BA.5 wave that we’re experiencing this summer. It’s actually looking worse in the Southern states, just like 2020, just like 2021.”
The challenge for employers is how to make sense of what feels like a never-ending cycle of surges and new variants. Fortunately, deaths due to BA.5 have not risen dramatically, which is likely due to the efficacy of vaccines and boosters. However, BA.5 poses a serious risk of business disruption due to how contagious it is. Breakthrough and repeat infections are occurring amongst the vaccinated. While the severity of the symptoms do not typically require hospitalization for the vaccinated and those in a normal risk category, infections are highly transmissible and can keep an employee out of work for 1-2 weeks with additional risk of long COVID symptoms.
Perhaps the most important aspect of BA.5 for employers to think about is how it informs them about the new COVID normal. Due to COVID fatigue, society is accepting more risk of infection in exchange for less restriction on our lives and social interactions. That’s most likely not going to change. Employers have to understand the macro-level implications of what that means for COVID and the workplace going forward. COVID variants such as BA.5 are fueled by infections. The more infections that occur, the greater the chance that new variants and sub-variants emerge. Scientists are already monitoring another Omicron subvariant, BA.2.75 that has been detected in 10 countries, including the United States, and seems to be growing quickly. We are very possibly in an endemic stage where there will be a repeated cycle of infection spikes that represent potential disruption to businesses and continued stress for employees. Additionally, an anticipated challenging flu season is coming this winter. Given this new reality, here are three questions employers should be thinking about.
What is the impact to my business strategies?
In an endemic phase, there will be explicit as well as subtle impacts to your business. In some industries, in-person work models are critical or preferred and disruption can be extremely damaging from a financial and public relations perspective. Even in a completely virtual work environment, the impact can’t be underestimated. In addition to increased sick days, employees have been facing elevated stress levels since the pandemic began, and employers have to weigh the impact in terms of employee engagement, retention, and talent acquisition. If you view your workforce as critical to achieving business goals, then it makes sense to support employees more now as new waves of variants are likely to arrive.
How does this fit with my overall approach to wellness and well-being?
It’s important to view COVID through the lens of your overall wellness and well-being strategy. Do you view yourself as a wellness leader in the employer space or is that an area of growth for your organization? If an endemic has arrived, the time is right to reevaluate your wellness programs to see where employees can be better supported. You can send a powerful message to your workforce that you are proactively investing in their wellness amidst the new COVID normal.
What are my options?
Primary.Health has created a new playbook to protect workforces from airborne disease. It includes raising vaccination rates, using the latest diagnostics to discern between the common cold, flu, and COVID-19, providing faster pathways to treatment, and having simple protocols and tracking that can be administered easily. It’s not one size fits all as solutions can be configured to where an organization is today with a low initial threshold. The first step is to assess your needs and then conduct discovery sessions.
To some degree, the emergence of BA.5 feels like a setback, but it provides the impetus to adapt and manage an endemic phase more successfully. It is an opportunity for employers to hone in on their overall wellness strategy and do more to help their workforce. Those that do will benefit not only from helping their workforce stay healthier, but also by differentiating their employer brand.
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