February 23, 2024

Omicron, Testing, Isolation & Boosters: Catching Up on the Latest Guidance

Stephen Massey
Managing Director, Health Action Alliance

As cases surge, employers need to understand the new official guidance for returning to work, booster eligibility and more. We break it down for you.

The last few weeks have seen not only a surge in Omicron cases and hospitalizations, but also a flurry of new recommendations for isolation, boosters, masking and testing. Here’s what employers need to know today.

What we know about Omicron

We now know that Omicron is highly transmissible, even among people who are fully vaccinated. Omicron appears to cause less severe illness than the Delta variant, but it is infecting so many more people that it is driving a spike in hospitalizations, overwhelming some local health systems.

Testing for Omicron at your workplace

Routine testing is key to reducing the risk of a workplace outbreak. Right now, all employees, regardless of vaccination status, should be tested at least once each week with antigen tests, which provide rapid results in 15 to 30 minutes. Because these tests may be less sensitive to Omicron, you should consider testing 2 or even 3 times per week if that is an option for your workplace. If an employee shows COVID-19 symptoms, they should isolate at home immediately and get a PCR test, even if an antigen test showed a negative result.

New CDC guidance for people who test positive

All employees who test positive should isolate for a minimum of 5 days, even if they show no symptoms, according to the latest CDC guidance. The day of the positive test is Day 0. Workers with symptoms should stay in isolation until those symptoms improve and they are fever-free, without using fever-reducing medication, for at least 24 hours. (Loss of taste or smell may persist much longer and are not factors for ending isolation.) For extra protection, employers may want to require a negative antigen test at the end of the isolation period before an employee can return to the workplace. All workers coming back from isolation should wear a well-fitting mask for at least the first 5 days back from isolation.

Other employees who had close contact with one who tested positive

According to CDC, workers who are fully vaccinated and “boosted” do not need to quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive (close contact being within 6 feet of someone for a total of 15 minutes over the course of a day). But they should wear a well-fitted mask for 10 days following the date of exposure and get tested after 5 days. Workers who are not fully vaccinated or boosted should quarantine for at least 5 days, get a negative test before returning to work and wear a well-fitted mask for an additional 5 days.

Better masks in time of Omicron

At the beginning of the pandemic, when PPE were in short supply, people were encouraged to wear at least a cloth mask. By now, especially with how contagious the Omicron variant is, employers should encourage or even require a well-fitted mask for all employees. N95- and KN95-rated masks are most effective to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and are now recommended for general use. The CDC has additional easy-to-understand mask advice.

Boosters after only 5 months

Being fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot remains the best protection against Omicron. About 62 percent of Americans — about 206 million people — are fully vaccinated, according to federal data. But, just 35 percent of Americans have received a booster since mid-August, when additional shots were first authorized, even as eligibility has greatly expanded.

For people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the CDC has updated its guidance to let them get a booster after just 5 months. The timing for boosters after the other vaccines remains the same: 6 months after the second Monderna shot, and 2 months after the Johnson & Johnson shot. Employers should make sure workers are aware of this timing, and make it as easy as possible for workers to get their boosters.

Our partners at the Public Health Communications Collaborative have made this easy-to-use booster toolkit with messaging and outreach tools to help you communicate with workers.

Boosters for children 12 and up

Yesterday, the CDC expanded booster eligibility for children ages 12 and up. Employers who are encouraging working parents to vaccinate eligible children should make this news part of their employee communications.