Nearly 16 months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, much of America is getting back to work making plans to bring workers back to the office. Lagging vaccinations and a pernicious new variant are threatening to send COVID-19 recovery efforts back to square one. With the Delta variant now the dominant form of the virus, understanding and mitigating its impact in our offices and public spaces is critical to maintaining our edge over the pandemic.
All facility and team managers should be taking the Delta variant even more seriously than other forms of COVID-19. First discovered in India this winter, the Delta variant has quickly spread across the globe. Viruses naturally evolve; the primary way the Delta variant has evolved is in its ability to spread more quickly, according to Yale Medicine epidemiologists. The variant’s enhanced virality has the World Health Organization calling it the “the fastest and fittest” form of COVID-19. A typical person infected with early strains of COVID-19 infected 2.5 other people on average. Average Delta variant infections spread between 3.5 and 4 other people. Today, nearly 80 percent of all coronavirus cases in the United States are Delta variant infections. Increased infections alone are enough to warrant serious concern, but early research indicates Delta is likely more dangerous than earlier versions and twice as likely to lead to hospitalization, according to the American Lung Association. A Scottish study published in Lancet found hospitalization rates from the delta variant are 85 percent higher than in people with the Alpha variant.
The good news is the vaccines are holding strong against the Delta variant. All available vaccines are proving to be highly effective against all known COVID-19 variants, reducing the chances of severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Evidence shows in some cases, vaccinated individuals can still spread the Delta variant, though it is rare. It’s important to remember that immunity is only part of what makes vaccines effective tools. Vaccines may not be as effective at stopping Delta variant infections, but they do keep the infected out of the hospital. Currently, the overwhelming majority of patients hospitalized in COVID-19 wards are unvaccinated.
All of this means in areas with vaccine hesitancy, COVID-19 protections should remain in place. The Delta variant speed means the virus can quickly overtake unvaccinated communities. Nearly 60 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated, but several pockets around the country are lagging far behind. States like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, all with vaccination rates below 40 percent, are at serious risk. The coming school year poses additional risks. Young Americans age 18 to 29 have the lowest vaccination rates of any age group. Welcoming students back to campus could fuel the spread of the more dangerous Delta variant. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, meaning middle and elementary schools in the United States could become major spreaders if mitigation efforts continue to roll back.
The slow pace of vaccination in the face of an even more dangerous disease means the CDC is now recommending resuming mask-wearing in public places. The CDC is urging even vaccinated people in certain areas of the country to resume wearing masks because of COVID-19. The latest CDC data shows 46 percent of U.S. counties have high transmission of the virus. Because of the danger in schools, the CDC is recommending everyone at K-12 schools wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. The recommendation is yet another reversal from the CDC, which has had to shift strategies to keep people safe who refuse to be vaccinated.
It’s not time to let your guard down, especially at the office. Workers spend much longer at an office than they do at retail or recreational establishments, meaning the risk of infection is higher due to the potential for prolonged exposure. The American Rescue Plan will fully reimburse any small or medium-sized business that provides workers with paid time off to get vaccinated. If questions remain about the vaccination status of building occupants or a workforce, full COVID-19 mitigation protocols should be in place requiring social distancing, masks, ventilation, and constant disinfection efforts. Our previous coverage found employers who want to require their workers to be vaccinated likely can do so, with some stipulations because it’s still only approved for emergency use. As the pandemic grinds on, sympathy for the unvaccinated is wearing thin. Several American institutions, from Federal cabinet departments to hospital systems, and even the NFL, have begun enforcing rules against the unvaccinated. Some employers aren’t waiting for legal justifications. Facebook, Blackrock, Morgan Stanley, and Alphabet are already making vaccination compulsory.
“If you are not vaccinated, please take the Delta variant seriously,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a recent White House briefing. “This virus has no incentive to let up, and it remains in search of the next vulnerable person to infect. Please consider getting vaccinated and take precautions until you do.”
The fear among epidemic and disease experts is that the longer the pandemic goes on, the greater chance of the virus morphing into a variant that vaccines aren’t effective against, sending the world back to square one. Our current set of vaccines is the best set of tools we have to end the pandemic and return to normal, but time is of the essence. Stopping the spread of coronavirus means striking when the iron is hot, using vaccines while they’re effective. Every transmission or replication has a tiny chance to create a new variant we can’t deal with. Ending transmission will prevent the virus from replicating and remove the potential for COVID-19 to evolve yet again.
Just when we think we’re out, the Delta variant pulls us back in. We’re all eager to move past the pandemic, but the hard truth is we may be fighting the final boss. Fighting the Delta variant and finally ending the pandemic that has unended life as we know will require the vaccinated and the unvaccinated to remain vigilant for a while longer. Facility and team managers should still be taking mitigation efforts seriously and following all CDC recommendations, no matter how often they change. Fighting evolving viruses means our strategies must evolve in kind. Keeping our distance, wearing a mask in certain situations, and maintaining indoor air quality and hygiene will help us get over the finish line, removing the need for such inconveniences permanently. Companies that are serious about keeping their building or their workplace from being a Delta variant epicenter are implementing vaccination requirements. Whether people will abide by them is a different thing entirely.