February 23, 2024

COVID-19: Actions for Employers to Get Ahead of a New Surge

Stephen Massey
Director, Health Action Alliance

As COVID-19 cases rise again, companies should use this time to put protections in place and expand their capacity to respond.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, up nearly 50% over the past two weeks. In some areas, the virus is spreading much faster.

  • Most of the Northeast is registering a “high” risk according to local COVID-19 Community Levels, and officials are warning of another summer surge in the South.

Why it matters: No one wants a repeat of last winter’s Omicron or last summer’s Delta surges. 

  • Employers have a responsibility to protect vulnerable workers, including workers who are immunocompromised or whose young children aren’t yet eligible for vaccines – and to provide a safe and healthy workplace. 

What to do now: This is the moment for employers to revisit your Readiness Assessment, build surge capacity, maintain flexibility and protect the health of your employee and communities. 

  • Communication and consistency are key. Announce to your teams what thresholds will prompt you to strengthen workplace health policies, then stick to them.

  • A lot has happened lately. Here’s what you need to know to prepare.

The Omicron subvariant, BA.2.12.1, has quickly become the dominant version of COVID-19. It rose to that status by spreading faster and evading immunity better than previous variants. But it is still detectable through at-home tests, and vaccines and boosters still protect against serious illness and death.

Improve your readiness: As the virus spreads, companies should monitor your COVID-19 Community Levels, which accounts for factors such as hospital capacity to determine local risk. As risks rise from “low” to “moderate” or “high,” companies should respond accordingly.

  • Remain flexible with return-to-office plans. Apple is among the companies allowing employees to temporarily opt out of a return to the office.

  • In Manhattan’s central business district, only 38% of workers are in the office on a given day, and only 8% are in the office five days a week.
  • Companies should consider requiring masks in common spaces like meeting rooms, hallways and elevators, at least for unvaccinated workers where COVID-19 Community Levels are “moderate,” and for all workers where the risk is “high.”
  • Employers can also get ahead of the risks by moving now to improve indoor air quality in the workplace and limit the spread of the virus.

Testing updates: Anyone traveling domestically is now recommended to test for COVID-19 as close as possible to their trip, and no more than three days in advance, based on the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Employers should consider requiring a negative test from employees one to two days before any business travel.
  • More free at-home tests are now available from COVIDTests.gov. As of last week, households are now able to order an additional eight free home tests through the mail.
  • Employers should make sure that workers have ordered all the at-home tests available to them. If local COVID-19 Community Levels rise to “moderate” or “high,” at-home tests will especially be useful for smaller companies that may not be able to offer on-site testing. In the meantime, companies should also consider building up their own supply to prepare for a possible surge.

More people are now recommended for boosters. The CDC is now recommending:

  • All adults ages 50 and over get a second booster four months after their first one.
  • All children ages 5 through 11 receive a booster shot five months after their initial Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination series.
  • More help could be on the way for kids. The Food and Drug Administration will meet on June 15 to hear emergency use authorization requests for the first COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

What to do now: Employers should make the new booster recommendations part of your ongoing company health communications and continue the paid time off (for vaccination and recovery) policies that encourage workers to keep their vaccinations up to date.

  • If the FDA and CDC authorize COVID-19 vaccines for the youngest children, employers should move quickly to educate working parents about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. 
  • Over half of parents of children under age 5 say they need more information before they’ll be ready to vaccinate those children. Information from their employers could make a difference: The Edelman Trust Barometer has found that “my employer” is the second most-believed source of health information, after only national health authorities.

  • Helping extend the protection of vaccines to the youngest eligible children will help keep parents from missing work for caregiving duties, keep schools open in the fall and ease the anxiety of working parents whose children remain vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Companies with vaccine requirements should keep them in place. As of March, 95% of employers who already require COVID-19 vaccination intend to keep those requirements in place this year, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson.