The Delta Variant & Return-to-Work Safety

The Delta Variant & Return-to-Work Safety

As COVID-19 cases rise throughout the country and the Delta variant becomes an increasing concern, many organizations are updating or rethinking their return-to-work plans and procedures. This may include delaying returns to the office, developing guidance and requirements for mask-wearing and vaccination, and implementing further remote or hybrid work policies. Here, we discuss common considerations and current guidance for a safe return-to-work amidst ever-evolving health concerns, as well as provide a free checklist based on OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance.

Recent COVID-19 Health Information

In recent months, the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant has become the predominant virus strain in the United States. This has served to slow pandemic recovery and prompt stricter health guidance, such as the CDC’s recent recommendation that vaccinated individuals resume mask-wearing in indoor settings.

While vaccinated individuals are protected from developing severe forms of COVID-19, the Delta variant can cause more severe illness than the original virus strain and is highly contagious regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated individuals remain the greatest concern, as they are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 or Delta variant infections and are more likely to contract and spread the virus.

To combat these concerns, it’s important to review information about the Delta variant, consider CDC guidance for COVID-19 best practices, and consider incorporating evolving health information into your return-to-work plan.

Employer Response

In light of current health data, organizations such as OSHA and the CDC have updated their employer return-to-work guidance to include information about vaccines, guidance regarding the Delta variant, and recommended best practice. Some of their primary recommendations include the following:

  • Encourage employees to get vaccinated. This remains the best way to prevent COVID-19 spread, serious illness, and hospitalization or death. When communicating about vaccines, focus on using clear, appropriate language and emphasizing factual, relatable benefits rather than statistics. If possible, include information about workplace vaccination policies (ex: additional time off for vaccination and potential side effects) and relevant resources (ex: vaccination sites in or near the workplace). Consider providing regular testing for employees who do not wish to be vaccinated. 
  • Develop and communicate appropriate health policies. Depending on local COVID-19 case numbers and transmission rates, as well as your work environment, determine whether to recommend or require: masks; regular COVID-19 testing; vaccination; social distancing; exposure reporting; and more. Once these policies are developed, ensure they are clearly communicated.
  • Consider developing a vaccination program. In recent weeks, many organizations have begun requiring employees to be vaccinated to return to work, offering incentives for vaccination, or altering policies for vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees (ex: only allowing vaccinated employees to return to in-person operations).
  • Support employee mental health. Particularly as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, many employees may be experiencing financial stress, illness in the family, concerns associated with childcare and school reopening, and more. It is valuable to provide easy access to mental health resources.
  • Update reopening plans. If your workplace has returned to work or is actively developing a return-to-work plan, stay informed of novel health data, local COVID-19 rates, and current research on health best practices. Consider delaying your reopening or reinstating remote or hybrid operations, and exercise caution when resuming employee travel.

Workplace Vaccination Programs

Current health guidance and hospitalization rates indicate that vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent both the spread of COVID-19 and the severity of the illness for those who contract it. As a result, many organizations have begun recommending or requiring vaccination as employees return to work. This is an effective way to promote workplace safety, but it also requires employers to consider and address factors such as disability accommodations, new workplace safety measures, and employee frustration.

To promote safe reopening, some organizations have developed programs that require or encourage employees to get COVID-19 vaccines. Prevalent program structures include:

  • Recommending vaccination for all employees and/or providing non-coercive incentives for employees to get vaccinated
  • Requiring vaccination for employees to resume in-person work
  • Requiring vaccination OR frequent testing for all employees to resume in-person work

These programs may be 1) mandatory or 2) permissive. If issuing a permissive policy, you may still want to communicate your organization’s guidance and available resources. When communicating mandatory policies, you must be more comprehensive. Ensure that the scope and nature of the policy is clear (ex: if remote employees are not returning to the office, they may fall beyond the scope of a regular testing program). Clearly state the rationale for your program, any relevant deadlines and next steps, and repercussions for failure to comply with your program. 

If needed, explain how employees can report their vaccination status and confirm that their health information will remain private and separate from their personnel files. For any testing or vaccine policies, develop and communicate reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities and/or medical or religious considerations.

Regardless of the program type, some employees will likely disagree with your organization’s policy, so it’s important to remain flexible and compassionate. This may include enabling employees who can not or do not wish to get vaccinated to continue working from home; offering time off for employees to get vaccinated or to recover from potential side effects; and offering on-site or nearby vaccination so that employees can easily schedule appointments.

Returning to Work

Depending on factors such as your location, work environment, and industry, your organization may want to delay reopening, consider long-term remote or hybrid options, and/or institute workplace testing or vaccination programs. As you consider your options, it can be helpful to reference resources such as current CDC health guidance, OSHA’s employer guidance, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Regardless of your reopening plan, effective communication is key. Ensure that employees know where to find information about workplace policies, who to reach out to with questions, and how to communicate COVID-19 exposures or concerns. This may be most accessible in a mobile format. A safety communications tool like LiveSafe empowers organizations to keep their workforce up to date on quickly changing information, while allowing them to ask questions and seek clarification. Another way to facilitate a safe return to work is by offering a daily health attestation that employees fill out prior to entering the workplace each day.

Additionally, OSHA has recently updated their reopening guidance for employers seeking to mitigate COVID-19 risk in the workplace. To learn more about their recommendations, download our free COVID Return-to-Work Checklist, which covers each point of guidance and provides additional reopening resources.

ALEXANDRA BRUNJES

Alexandra Brunjes has a B.S. in Neurobiology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. with minors in Creative Writing and French. She is a published journalist and experienced health and science writer. Her expertise includes risk intelligence, healthcare and neuroscience, and technology.

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