It has been nearly a year and a half since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began, and while we have made some progress in fighting the virus, it appears we still have a long way to go. The emergence of the Delta variant, first identified in India in December 2020, has weakened the defenses we have put in place to stop the spread of the virus and significantly impeded our ability to return to normalcy.
As variants emerge and guidance from health authorities continues to change, many businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to implement new protocols and ensure the health, safety and productivity of their workforce.
The Delta Variant
The Delta variant, which studies have shown is about twice as contagious as the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, is changing the game because it's quickly impacting those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. A study in Massachusetts found that roughly 75% of the nearly 500 new cases identified in a small coastal town were in people who were fully vaccinated. Of these cases in vaccinated people, 90% of them tested positive for the Delta variant.
While the CDC maintains that vaccination is still the most effective way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19, we see that it does not stop the spread of the Delta variant to those who are not vaccinated. Experts believe that this indiscriminate spread to both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals is due to the variant’s ability to rapidly reproduce within the body. The viral load, or amount of virus, detected in the airways of individuals infected with the Delta variant is approximately 1,000 times higher than those infected with the original virus. This means there is more virus readily available to spread. Studies have also shown that the window of infectiousness is wider for the Delta variant, meaning you could be contagious earlier before the development of symptoms or a positive COVID-19 test than with previous strains.
Numerous factors have led the CDC to go back on the previous guidance they issued in the spring that stated you could go mask-free once you were fully vaccinated. On July 28, 2021, the CDC released updated guidance that recommended the use of masks in areas of substantial or high transmission, regardless of your vaccination status. Since then, many local health departments have reverted back to mask mandates for all enclosed public places. The CDC also included a recommendation that anyone who has had close contact with someone who has tested positive should be tested for COVID-19 within 3-5 days after exposure and should wear a mask in public settings for 14 days or until they have received a negative test result.
OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard and Vaccine Mandates
On September 9, 2021, the Biden administration instructed the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). The ETS requires employers with 100 or more employees to get fully vaccinated or provide a negative COVID-19 test weekly. Also, as part of the ETS, employers would be obligated to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover if they experience symptoms after being vaccinated. This ETS has not been issued at the time of this blog post.
There is still have a lot of ground to cover in the battle against COVID-19. To leverage OSHA’s authority, the government is putting workplace safety at the center of its newest strategy. This is sure to impact the safety and productivity of your workforce.
To learn more, check out the on-demand webinar, Evolution of COVID 19 and Workplace Safety, for a deep dive into current expert guidance so you can keep your workforce safe and productive.