As the number of daily COVID cases in the U.S. continued to drop over the spring and fall, businesses once again began scheduling corporate events and planning to bring employees back to the workplace.
But experts warn the true daily case count may actually be three, or even ten times more than these official numbers, due to a trend of underreporting. More worrisome still, the latest variants, including BA.4.6, BA.5, XBB, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, are extremely contagious, seeming to evade any immunity provided by vaccines. It all suggests case numbers could skyrocket any day.
With this potential surge on the horizon, now is a good time to assess the variants we’re currently facing domestically, and whether or not they are a threat. It’s also worth it to examine why and how business leaders can exercise caution bringing employees back to the office.
BA.4.6, BA.5, & other COVID variants
Since the pandemic began, scientists have tried to keep up with the virus’ rapid changes. First, there were variant Alpha and Delta strains, and more recently the less severe, but far more contagious, Omicron and its many subvariants.
Appearances of each of these variants and subvariants, coupled with frequent changes to CDC recommendations, has significantly changed how the average person views COVID safety.
For example, the BA.5 omicron subvariant is less likely than previous variants to cause serious illness or death. However, it’s more contagious and pretty effective at evading immunity from vaccines. Now, subvariant BA.4.6 and the many other subvariants pose potential to change the pandemic landscape yet again.
At the moment, BA.4.6 makes up only about 13% of national cases, and experts believe it’s unlikely to become dominant. In other words, BA.5 will remain the primary short-term concern, unless of course COVID surprises us, like it has so many times before.
If BA.4.6 did somehow become the dominant strain, it could potentially be more effective at evading immunity than BA.5. Which is why the new bivalent booster is such a vital development, by targeting both BA.5 and BA.4 and all related variants (including BA.4.6).
Unfortunately, less than 4% of Americans have received this latest booster, considerably fewer than experts hoped. Although there are a variety of contributing factors, a key one is that many individuals still hold misconceptions about how long COVID-neutralizing antibodies last.
COVID antibodies & immunity
When an individual gets a COVID vaccine, or contracts the virus itself, their body develops antibodies that will combat the virus. As long as antibodies last in the body, they will theoretically prevent it from contracting the COVID virus again.
But antibody numbers can drop all too quickly, making the previously vaccinated once again vulnerable after just 4 to 6 months. Assuming you have antibodies against BA.5 from a previous infection, there’d be no guarantee you’re immune to BA.4, or any other variant for that matter.
The reality is, COVID immunity is tricky, and every new variant complicates matters even more, which is why new boosters are so important for progress. Even though boosters do not necessarily prevent you from contracting or transmitting the virus, they are the number one way to protect against serious illness or death from COVID.
Unfortunately for business leaders, keeping track of vaccines and boosters for hundreds, or even thousands of employees can get complicated fast. Some businesses are using software to track vaccines and alert employees when boosters are necessary. While this certainly can help mitigate the issue, only so much can be done if employees don’t want boosters—or can it?
During this pandemic, employees have historically trusted management and HR over the federal government regarding COVID safety information and recommendations. That suggests at least part of the responsibility for increasing percentages of boosted Americans falls on employers.
Protecting employees (no matter what the future brings)
Whether the coming winter does in fact bring a surge, business leaders still need to plan for protecting employees from COVID. Especially since “Long” COVID—which affects roughly one in five of those who contract the virus—could potentially devastate your workforce.
Nearly 80% of those diagnosed with Long COVID struggle to perform typical daily tasks for three months or more post infection, either reducing productivity or sidelining them altogether. This is an especially concerning statistic considering Long COVID can occur in light, or even asymptomatic cases, with no known cure for it as of yet.
Rates of Long COVID, however, may be lower in vaccinated and boosted individuals, so again, responsibility falls on employers to protect their workforces. For starters, consider educating your employees on the realities of COVID immunity and encourage them to vaccinate and get boosters.
To keep employees from getting COVID altogether, you need to go even further. You can effectively keep COVID out of your corporate events or workplace with best-in-class safety measures. Businesses can utilize ultra high-accuracy microfluidics tests (12-min runtime) or rapid PCR tests (30-min runtime), instead of relying on traditional “rapid home tests” that require serial testing—that’s two to three consecutive tests, 48 hours apart, for an accurate result according to new August 2022 FDA guidance – which is essentially impractical for corporate gatherings indoors.