The Delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States. As it continues to spread, both in infections and news headlines, employers are wondering how it affects their return-to-work plans.
What is the Delta Variant?
The Delta variant is a more transmissible, more contagious strain of COVID-19. As of early July, it had accounted for 51.7% of new cases in the United States. It is currently surging in pockets of the country with lagging vaccination rates, such as the Midwest and upper Mountain States, where cases and hospitalizations have recently spiked.
A study from the United Kingdom showed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with the Delta variant. An additional mutation of the Delta strain has also been identified, called “Delta Plus.” As of now, Delta Plus does not seem to pose a significantly different threat than Delta.
Given how much more easily Delta is spread, employers are asking whether they should be concerned and what they need to do to address this new threat.
Current Vaccines Remain Effective
The good news is that an employer’s best protection against the Delta variant is the same as it has been: encourage employees to get vaccinated. According to the CDC, current evidence shows that the present vaccines are effective against the Delta variant. However, there is some current discussion about vaccine effectiveness after the six-month mark, as some manufacturers are considering recommending a booster shot.
Does This Affect Your Return-to-Work plans? Should It?
While the Delta variants are more transmissible, the fundamentals of the virus – at least as far as employers are concerned – seem to be the same. Transmission is higher and there is a risk of more serious illness. But there does not appear to be significant risk for vaccinated persons.
Whether your business should take additional measures depends on your community and workforce. Where there are high vaccination rates, there does not seem to be any need to act any differently than you had been proceeding. However, if you are in an area with lower vaccination rates, you may want to emphasize mitigation efforts such as social distancing and masking while emphasizing vaccination. You may also consider whether local conditions allow you to safely return to work. Any actions you take will likely be familiar.
Should You Make any Adjustments?
Whether you take additional safety measures as you proceed with your return-to-work plans depends on your risk tolerance, community, and local law. If your jurisdiction requires social distancing and masking, then you should continue to adhere to that. But if not, you should decide based on your community and workforce. Surely, emphasizing masking and social distancing has little risk.
If your workforce and community (including customers and clients) have high rates of vaccination, then additional measures may be unnecessary. As always, you should gauge the pulse of the communities in which you operate. If people are concerned about the variant, even if they are vaccinated, additional measures may put them at ease. On the other hand, if your community is highly vaccinated, these may be unnecessary. It seems many people are beginning to feel comfortable about their safety and are feeling like we are out of the woods. Reinstating measures may make people feel like we are moving backwards. In that case, they could cause more harm than good. You are in the best position to know the needs of your community and how your employees and guests will react.
What Does This Mean for Vaccinations?
Vaccination remains an employer’s best tool for returning to normalcy, even with the Delta variant. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, it is “likely” that the Delta variant will result in a more serious disease. Additionally, he says that getting vaccinated is important not only because it protects against serious disease and hospitalization, but also because it helps prevent the virus from mutating into something more dangerous (like the Delta variant). He recently stated that “if ever there was a reason to get vaccinated, this is it.”
Unvaccinated populations are at the greatest risk of the Delta variant. It is possible, then, that the higher transmission rates could encourage undecided and holdout employees to get vaccinated. To date, there is anecdotal evidence that it is having this effect.
You should consider capitalizing on this more aggressive strain as part of your vaccination campaigns. Its higher transmission rate may be just the push you need to get the great majority of your workforces vaccinated. However, given the political polarization around vaccines, you should be careful to not be seen as fearmongering. Education should be at the forefront of any vaccine campaign, and education on the Delta variant’s transmissibility should be highlighted.
You should continue monitoring the Delta variant. Thankfully, you can take some solace knowing it does not change much for your day-to-day activities and policies. The bottom line is the same: employers should continue to encourage vaccination. If needed, employers may also offer incentives to vaccination, but should keep a few things in mind when they do.
There is still much to learn about the Delta variant. You should continue to listen to public health officials and guidance. In the meanwhile, Fisher Phillips will continue to monitor the coronavirus.