November 18, 2021

New Developments on Booster Eligibility, a Pill to Treat COVID-19 and OSHA’s COVID-19 Rules

Stephen Massey
Managing Director, Health Action Alliance

As cases rise once again, employers should continue to encourage vaccination and create the safest possible work environment.

Amid a flurry of headlines about booster shots, a pill to treat COVID-19, and OSHA’s emergency COVID-19 rules—and more news on the way—we’ve provided a summary of what businesses need to know today and what they should look out for soon.

Booster shots may become available to all adults as early as this week. 

While boosters are currently available to select groups—based on age, underlying conditions, or working in ‘high risk’ settings—a Food and Drug Administration panel will meet as early as today to offer blanket eligibility to all adults. The next step would be a review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could come as early as tomorrow.

Right now, adults are able to self-certify that they are eligible for a booster—for example, they don’t have to prove that their job puts them at high risk of exposure—which makes boosters effectively available to all. 

Still, officials have been concerned that the confusion around who is officially eligible, and for whom boosters are recommended, has slowed booster shot uptake. A blanket recommendation by the CDC would remove that confusion and—medical experts hope—keep protection high as COVID-19 cases are increasing once more. 

Both Pfizer and Moderna have asked for FDA authorization. The CDC previously stated that adults can ‘mix and match’ COVID-19 vaccines, so boosters from any maker are already available to eligible adults regardless of which vaccine they initially received.

Pfizer is asking the FDA to authorize its pill to treat COVID-19. 

The ‘antiviral’ pill is designed to stop the virus’ advance inside the body but would not protect people from getting COVID-19 in the first place. So even if the drug wins authorization, employers should continue urging vaccination as the best defense against the spread of the virus in the workplace.  

Initially, Pfizer will ask only that the pill be authorized for unvaccinated people at high risk of serious illness. According to its clinical trials, the drug reduces the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent. Based on that promise, there are reports that the U.S. government has arranged to buy enough of the pills to supply 10 million people. It is unknown whether or how the drug would affect long-COVID symptoms.

There is no current timeline for reviews by the FDA or CDC or for when the pill could become available. Pfizer is the second company to seek authorization for an antiviral pill, following an application by Merck. If either of the drugs is authorized, it remains to be seen what they will cost or whether they will be covered by insurance.

The challenge to OSHA’s COVID-19 rules is in a new court. 

OSHA’s new COVID-19 rules remain on pause after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reaffirmed the hold it placed on the rules last Friday. Now, a different federal appeals court, the Sixth Circuit, will hear arguments on the rules—the next step in a process that is expected to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Fifth Circuit judges were unsparing in their assessment of OSHA’s emergency temporary standard (ETS) for, among other things, being applied too broadly to different workplaces, imposing burdensome costs on employers, and not making a case that potentially infectious workers pose a “grave danger” to others.

Unless the Sixth Circuit lifts the hold on the ETS, OSHA is currently prevented from taking action—but that doesn’t stop employers from preparing. If you missed our special briefing or would like to revisit the advice from our experts, we’ve provided ‘bookmarks’ to their answers from the webinar, as well as short written answers from the ‘lightning round’ portion of the Q&A.