How Businesses Can Manage “Stealth” COVID Variants

office workers with maks pointing to a computer screen

With every new COVID variant and subvariant, it gets harder for companies to develop a comprehensive plan to allow corporate events and/or let employees return to work. Some worry that the most recent subvariant of Omicron––BA.2––might bring another surge, especially as restrictions lift and the world tries to find a “new normal”, while there are still plenty of vulnerable people around.

Recently we’ve heard a lot about BA.2 and how it might affect the business world. BA.2 now represents a majority of COVID cases in many areas and at least half of documented cases in the U.S. It has been called “stealth omicron,” since its particular genetic markers may make it more difficult to track. Experts agree that BA.2 is highly transmissible, potentially more so than the original BA.1 subvariant.
Early evidence suggests that reinfections with BA.2 after BA.1 do occur but are rare. If you were infected with BA.1, then you’re probably well protected from BA.2. But the protection is not complete. Scientists anticipate that places where BA.1 has already peaked at high levels might avoid subsequent surges of BA.2.

The risk for Long Covid seems to be like that with other variants – there are more and more ailments being identified that fall under this poorly defined syndrome. ONE MORE REASON TO AVOID GETTING INFECTED AND STAY PROTECTED!

As far as treatments for Covid-19 goes, both BA.1 and BA.2 have shown an ability to evade most monoclonal antibody treatments authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. The antiviral drugs Paxlovid, molnupiravir, and remdesivir have been effective against severe diseases from both BA.1 and BA.2 when taken soon after diagnosis, and so has Evusheld, which is designed to protect people who have not been infected.

Is the BA.2 variant something that businesses should be especially careful of? And how should CEOs, HR and event professionals, and employees respond?

Common Misconceptions

Some think that the “stealth” part of the stealth omicron variant means there will be more false negatives, which is when people test negative even though they have COVID. With false negatives, employees might think they’re safe coming back to work when they’re still contagious.

However, the word “stealth” is misleading and probably should not be used. False negatives are no more likely with BA.2 than any other subvariant. “Stealth” just means that BA.2 may be hard to recognize as that subvariant. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing continues to be highly accurate for BA.2, with 85% to 97% accuracy. The conventional lateral-flow rapid antigen tests (particularly home tests) are much less accurate than PCR: Typically, they are only 50% to at best 70% sensitive, regardless of whether they are used to test for BA.2 or any other variant.

So, your testing strategy shouldn’t change because of BA.2. If you’re using lateral flow (or home) antigen tests, you should test consistently and repeatedly (many have argued at least once every three days) for certainty. If you’re using higher quality (lab-based) antigen tests (e.g., the microfluidic test at AllClear Healthcare) one-time testing is significantly more reliable if you need to travel. For “return to workplace” testing, repetitive (high quality) antigen testing has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of outbreaks. If using lab-based PCR, be prepared to wait a few days for more accurate results, unless a rapid PCR is available (e.g., at AllClear Healthcare).

Another misconception is that vaccinations are not as effective against BA.2 as they are against other variants. Even vaccinated employees may wonder if they can safely attend a corporate event or go back to work. However, it has become clear that vaccinations are very effective against BA.2 and considerably reduce the risk of severe disease, death and hospitalization – as long as you have been fully vaccinated or received a booster within the last six months. That said, some individuals can still become moderately to severely sick due to reinfection with the BA.2 variant. Even just considering mild to moderate disease:  with the high level of transmissibility, there remains considerable risk to sidelining a significant portion of your team if there is a spreader event. (I.e., if the flu has transmissibility of ~2 and measles and mumps ~10, BA.2 is somewhere around ~7 or ~8).

The last misconception is that higher transmission rates for BA.2 will also result in higher numbers of deaths and hospitalizations. So far, we have not seen a particular increase in either statistic compared to BA.1 or the delta variant. In many regions, deaths and hospitalizations continue to decrease. Omicron with its high transmissibility did reduce the death rate, but due to so many individuals being infected the total number of deaths was considerable.
Over the last week, test positivity rates and overall case numbers have increased in several parts of the country – including New York, Massachusetts, and some other states. This is likely due to a combination of the increased transmissibility of the widely circulating BA.2 variant, as well as increased travel and socializing. It remains to be seen whether there will be another surge throughout the USA. It therefore is highly advisable to stay vigilant – and use precautions in crowded spaces (especially indoors), promote vaccination and boosters and test on a regular basis for return to work, symptoms, travel or for planned events where lots of people come together.

Of course, Omicron is still a “variant of concern,” and includes many subvariants. BA.2 has just as much potential as other variants to create long-lasting problems (Long-Covid) in those who contract it. It needs to be taken seriously – and not only by at-risk individuals. Hence, monitoring and testing remain an important consideration as you would for any other variant.

In short, if you have a best-in-class testing and monitoring strategy in place for COVID-19, “stealth” omicron doesn’t have to change how you do business or how you prepare for a return to the workplace.

Practical Advice 

So how do you bring people together during this indeterminate phase of COVID? Let’s say you want to get your sales team together to work on a long-term strategy. You could try a hybrid approach, in which part of your team connects remotely and others who are comfortable attending the event could do so. The problem is that a hybrid approach reduces participation.

While hybrid attendance is always a valid option, companies will likely continue to aim for increased in-person attendance. How can you make sure your employees feel safe?

Comprehensive Management and Monitoring

To help people feel secure coming to work, you want to be able to prevent COVID exposure and monitor your progress. How can you know if employees are coming to work sick and potentially putting others at risk? Slow or inaccurate testing makes it difficult to achieve true certainty. Consistent and ongoing testing is the best option to avoid accidental COVID transmission in a return-to-work environment but keeping track of testing and getting results in a timely manner can be difficult. At offsite events, it is more critical to have highly accurate testing at the time of entry to the event.

Fortunately, recently-developed ultra-high accuracy microfluidics tests allow companies to perform rapid testing with much higher accuracy rates than the typical at-home test. Higher accuracy decreases the chances of false negatives and accidental transmission, and you can get results in minutes.

Monitoring software can also help you keep track of who has been tested and when, as well as who has been vaccinated and when (Knowing “when” the last vaccine/booster has become at least as important as knowing whether someone is vaccinated/unvaccinated in general). Such software can also help to find out who might be ill, so you can hold that corporate event without worrying about spreading COVID. The important thing is that you have a carefully planned and considered policy in place to provide the safest environment possible for your team.

Education and Updates

Monitoring policies won’t help you raise attendance unless your employees know and trust your protocols. Communication here is key. About 78% of employees believe businesses should be helping to protect them and their families during COVID, but only 14% really trust employers to do that.

Your best method for increasing trust will be transparency. As you update your policies to best-in-class, you help your employees understand and appreciate how you intend to keep them safe. In particular, implementing changes based on their feedback increases the likelihood that you can gain their trust. Also, help them understand how and why you’re integrating monitoring software and/or testing protocols, so that they can make sure to provide you with any updates.

HR professionals and CEOs have their own set of goals during the pandemic. At the same time, they can’t afford to disregard the needs of employees. Hopefully, these strategies will help you balance safety with corporate necessity now, and as any new variants arise. More tools are being developed every day to help companies navigate any future COVID variants and policy shifts.