A back-to-school spike in COVID-19 cases is prompting some employers to adopt a back-to-basics approach to disease prevention. At the same time, many employers are imposing return-to-office mandates.
Complicating matters are predictions that a "tripledemic" could emerge this fall and winter—a viral collision of upticks in COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
So, what can employers do to combat the COVID-19 threat as well as looming flu and RSV risks? They might consider dusting off their pandemic playbooks, as Venture Smarter, a provider of consulting services for startups and small businesses, has done.
Ramping Up Safety Measures
Venture Smarter CEO Jon Morgan said the recent spike in COVID-19 cases drove the company—which employs about 120 people at its Cincinnati headquarters, at regional offices and remotely—to reintroduce pandemic-era workplace guidelines. Among them are:
- Requiring employees to wear masks indoors.
- Reinforcing the importance of regular hand-washing and use of hand sanitizers.
- Reinstituting social distancing, such as limiting capacity in meeting rooms and common areas.
- Encouraging employees to promptly report potential COVID-19 symptoms or exposures.
- Requiring regular COVID-19 tests for employees, with onsite testing now available.
"Furthermore, we have revisited our remote-work policies to accommodate employees who may feel uncomfortable returning to the office during this surge," Morgan said. "While we have encouraged employees to come to the office when necessary, we have also provided flexibility for remote work to ensure their safety and well-being."
Mask Mandates Make a Comeback
Here's a roundup of actions that other employers have recently taken to address the COVID-19 uptick:
- Morris Brown College in Atlanta withdrew a two-week mask mandate for employees and students after the move stirred up a firestorm of criticism on social media. However, the school continued to conduct on-campus temperature checks, carry out contact tracing and remind people about hand-washing.
- Kaiser Permanente's health care facilities in the Santa Rosa, Calif., area, brought back a mask mandate for health care professionals, staff, patients and others. The organization also recommended that people get the new COVID-19 booster when it becomes available. These actions come on the heels of a rise in COVID-19 infections among patients.
- Movie studio Lionsgate imposed a brief mask mandate in the wake of several positive COVID-19 tests within its Southern California workforce. The Los Angeles County Department of Health ordered the mask directive, which lasted less than a week.
- The more than 730 school districts across New York state—employing more than 210,000 teachers—can obtain COVID-19 test kits and masks from state education and health agencies. An increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spurred this initiative.
Encouraging But Not Mandating Masks
Unlike employers such as Morris Brown College and Kaiser Permanente, wellness and health website Health Canal hasn't required employees to wear masks indoors. Rather, it's encouraging them to do so.
In fact, Erik Pham, founder and CEO of Health Canal, said the company's 33 in-office employees might not need to resort to wearing masks. Why? Because employees seem to be following COVID-19 guidelines "without a fuss," he said.
Health Canal also employs 53 remote workers.
Aside from urging onsite employees to wear masks indoors, Health Canal has resurrected regular disinfection of its Cleveland offices by a cleaning company, Pham said. Disinfection happened once a day at the height of the pandemic, tapering off to once a week and then once a month as the pandemic waned.
"However, in the wake of the current rise in new cases, we have decided to reintroduce weekly disinfecting," Pham said. "We will continue to monitor the situation further, and if we see cases surging again, we will go to the initial daily disinfecting program."
Revisit Your Protocols
Fernanda Anzek, managing director of HR operations at Insperity, a provider of HR services headquartered in Kingwood, Texas, said that if workplace leaders didn't create emergency preparedness plans during the pandemic or haven't recently updated them, now is the time to do so.
"Ideally, business leaders should have policies in place to manage a resurgence of the virus and any unknown pandemic-like issues that could potentially interrupt business in the future," Anzek said.
Once these plans are produced or updated, they should be shared with employees and other stakeholders, she recommended.
"Plans should lay out a clear chain of command, any necessary emergency functions and responsibilities, and employee check-in processes," Anzek said. "The more detailed the plan, the better everyone will understand their individual roles, duties and expectations."
As COVID-19 cases ramp up, it's important for employers to establish and regularly communicate illness protocols, she added. Similar to the measures undertaken by Venture Smarter, these protocols might include instructions for dealing with employees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms and those who test positive for COVID-19 but may not exhibit symptoms. Protocols should align with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she advised.
"No matter the size of the company, coronavirus policies should be fair and standardized for all," Anzek said.
John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.