The COVID pandemic hasn’t disappeared, but thankfully, it has dissipated (for now). Will there be another surge? Maybe. Will it ever completely go away? Probably not.
While laxing some restrictions is expected, now is not the time for businesses to completely dismiss all precautionary measures or forget the lessons learned over the past two years.
Here’s where COVID-related masking guidelines, long COVID concerns, and employer vaccine mandates stand as of mid-March 2022.
New CDC Masking Guidelines
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines for mask wearing. These new metrics greatly reduce the number of people who should mask up.
The new metrics take into account COVID-19 admissions to local hospitals and percent of occupied COVID inpatient beds rather than simply overall case counts.
Based on the modified metrics, the CDC will now measure each county’s COVID-19 spread as:
Only areas measured with high spread will the CDC recommend all individuals wear masks while indoors in public.
How should businesses move forward with masking?
The CDC’s updated guidance is not legally binding for employers of any size. However, OSHA typically follows the CDC guidance regarding masking and COVID-19 policy for the workplace.
Employers are free to require protocols beyond those recommended by the CDC, as long as they comply with local and state COVID-19 regulations.
Employers should take into account their company’s own workspace concerns when updating masking protocols in the workplace, including:
- Number of vaccinated individuals present
- Ability to maintain social distancing in the office
- Quality of ventilation throughout the workplace
- Employees at high risk of severe illness
Regardless of how your business chooses to move forward, clear and consistent communication of office protocol is necessary. A rational explanation of why the rules are in place is instrumental in keeping acceptance, enforcement, and morale high among employees.
HR and managers will also need to continue to ensure retaliation, discrimination, and harassment are handled quickly and effectively.
Long COVID concerns for employers
One of the biggest COVID-related issues employers currently face is supporting employees experiencing post-COVID conditions, also known as “long COVID.”
Research found that over 70% of COVID-19 patients reported at least one symptom at 60 days or longer after initial diagnosis.
There are two key reasons why long COVID-19 poses such difficulty for both employers and workers:
- Difficult to detect and diagnose
- Number of symptoms that afflicted persons may present, including:
- Respiratory issues
- Chest pains
- Brain fog
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, long COVID-19 may constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act if it limits one or more major life activities.
Because of this, the DOL recommends employees consider providing these general workplace accommodations:
- Providing or modifying equipment or devices
- Job restructuring
- Part-time, modified, or remote/hybrid work schedules
- Modifying performance evaluations, training materials, and HR policies
- Ensuring the workplace readily accessible for people with disabilities
At minimum, employers must ensure that managers are trained to be aware of long COVID and be responsive to an employee’s needs and request for accommodation.
No significant update on Employer Vaccine Mandates… yet
Back in January, the U.S. Supreme Court issued dual decisions on the Biden administration’s ambitious two-part plan to boost the vaccination of American workers against COVID-19—the Large Employer and Healthcare Employer Vaccine mandates.
For the Large Employer vaccine Mandate, the court ruled that large employers (100+ employees) did not have to proceed with requiring vaccines or testing mandate.
In a separate opinion, the court did allow the vaccine mandate issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to move forward for healthcare employers.
Companies are free to institute their own vaccine mandates, as long as they are in accordance with local laws. Though after the court’s decision, employers taking this route should expect similar legal challenges.
In response to legal defeat, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) promised to rework the mandate for additional workplaces, including ones with enhanced risk. As of mid-March nothing has been announced. That does not mean a retooled challenge will not materialize, especially if the country experiences a significant spike from a new variant.
OSHA has announced increased healthcare inspections as the threat of additional COVID variants lingers. These inspections will focus mainly on medical facilities, such as hospitals and nursing facilities.
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