How HR Can Successfully Navigate Long-Standing Covid
The last couple years have been rough. Covid hit us all hard, and it continues to do so. What’s worse, many regions that were highly optimistic early this year that the Covid-19 pandemic was nearly over have had to consider reinstating mask mandates due to the highly transmissible BA.5 variant. Some states were so optimistic that there was talk of switching from a pandemic approach to an endemic approach This would mean that Covid would have gone from being a “socially critical” disease to something we learn to live with every year, like influenza. Unfortunately, case spikes in many areas make this a still-distant possibility, and new data about long-haulers who still suffer from life-altering symptoms at least a month after contracting Covid has shown the folly of dismissing the Covid threat too soon.
The continued presence of Covid brings some enormous challenges to people working in HR, who are trying hard to coax people back to work while still observing the CDC-recommended safety measures. Employees are going to have plenty of questions before they return: How can companies make sure that their employees are safe? What’s the risk to employees if they start coming into the office and attending corporate events? How can employees be sure they won’t bring Covid home to their families, or end up with Long COVID?
Fortunately, there are ways for businesses to successfully navigate this period of uncertainty in critically risky environments that require ongoing vigilance. The key is new and innovative best-in-class, highly accurate and Covid testing which can deliver trusted results in minutes.
Pandemic or Endemic?
While current Covid variants are generally less deadly than the original strains, most scientists say we’re not ready to call this an endemic. Data shows that countries all over the world are still seeing high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths from the virus – rates that pre-pandemic would be unthinkable.
Plus, the government is finally acknowledging the continuous threat of Long COVID. Long COVID has affected up to 30% of individuals who get Covid. Most of those who get Long COVID have 30-90 days of lasting Covid symptoms, ranging from very mild to fairly severe. But new data has shown that .5% to 2% of those with Long COVID may have it a lot worse, with Covid symptoms lasting for months, years or indefinitely after the initial infection. All told, corporations still need to protect their employees. Still, vaccination and monitoring policies have begun to relax, so as we return to the workplace, there will likely be fewer safeguards in place.
And when Covid finally does go from a pandemic to an endemic disease, we’ll probably see a shift to a more traditional approach for prevention, similar to what we currently have in place for the flu or in high-risk areas with testing much like the shift we saw at airports after 9/11 with the incorporation of the Transport Security Administration. States will undoubtedly update their vaccination policies and case tracking accordingly. But where does that leave HR staff who are trying to encourage employees to come back to the workplace and to corporate events today?
Addressing employee stress
Though Covid could eventually shift from an acute to a potentially chronic health challenge, companies are facing a different kind of epidemic, one of residual stress and flagging morale affecting employees who’ve been emotionally battered by well over two years of lockdown and social isolation. According to SHRM, some 65% of employers are saying that they’re struggling to elevate employee morale back to something near pre-pandemic levels.
Keep in mind that the transition back to an in-person or hybrid workplace is going to bring its own emotional challenges for employees. The lack of clear communication and certainty, from health and public officials and the special interest advocates surrounding them, about what their work arrangements will look like has caused increased stress in around 40% of employees.
Companies need to have clear guidelines on what their expectations are going to be during this transitional period. What percentage of employees will remain remote? And in which job functions? Will employees with young children still have the option to work from home at least part of the week? Or are you expecting everyone on site as much of the time as possible?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the things that will put employees’ minds at rest is a continued commitment to effective Covid testing. Sure, some portion of your staff may balk, but on the whole, testing provides employees with peace of mind.
But which tests should you use? The widely available self-administered kits that test for the presence of Covid antigens are fast and convenient, but they’re generally not as reliable as lab-based tests: the at-home tests vary widely in their accuracy, from 35.8% to 72%. So if your staff members are attending a work event, there’s a 28% to 64% chance the people around them will be unwittingly carrying the virus. That’s likely to have a significant impact on attendance. For client organizations who believed “traditional rapid lateral-flow antigen” testing was adequate for corporate indoor events, the FDA has effectively called foul recommending repeat or serial testing following a negative result on any at-home COVID-19 test, whether or not you have COVID-19 symptoms.“ If you want any degree of certainty that people aren’t bringing the virus into the workplace, you must either administer these tests on a regular basis to ensure a higher probability of an accurate result, or you must ditch home tests in favor of more accurate options like PCR or new ultra-high accuracy microfluidics tests (M-Ag).
By contrast, the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests for Covid are far more reliable, with accuracy levels from 85% to over 90%. The big advantage of these tests is that they can magnify small amounts of the virus, which makes it far easier to detect. Unfortunately, most PCR tests are lab-based and require samples to be sent to a lab, resulting in significant delays for companies to see the results. This makes them impractical for point-of-care testing, or for an event or in the workplace.
One way to get around delays in procuring accurate test results is to test employees with rapid tests multiple times, as often as every three days leading up to events, thereby increasing your chance of getting a correct result. On the other hand, providing multiple tests each week for a high number of employees can be seen as expensive. Plus, it can be hard to keep track of who has already been tested and who hasn’t.
Fortunately, there are newly-developed tests, including those offered by AllClear Healthcare, that have greatly improved on the low accuracy of the traditional at-home lateral-flow antigen tests and the often slow results of PCR. You can receive rapid, lab-verified microfluidics (M-Ag) test results in as few as 15 minutes with best-in-class accuracy levels comparable to those of PCR. These new options enable a new standard in point-of-care testing strategy.
Whatever testing method you put in place, you’re going to need a way to monitor who has been tested and what their results were, as well as a way to track when and how many times employees have been vaccinated. Innovation in health tracking software allows you to do just that.
Calling Covid-19 an endemic didn’t prevent BA.5 from once again changing the landscape of Covid prevention in the workplace. The only way for HR to help employees and businesses achieve peace of mind and certainty now and in the future is through updated vaccination, testing, and monitoring. Thankfully, these policies are already becoming a reality.