What should employers know about the new variants of COVID-19? How should management teams prepare for an increased number of cases?
News and Updates on the COVID-19 Variants
- There are 3 new, highly transmissible variants: B.1.1.7 (UK), B1.351 or 501Y.V2 (South Africa), and P.1 (Brazil)
- There is concern the COVID-19 variant mutations will have slightly weakened protection from the vaccines
- We are not sure how effective certain viral tests are at identifying the variants
What businesses should know about the arrival of the new variants
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website provides information and updates related to the COVID-19 variants.
What is a variant?
Viruses are constantly mutating and, over time, they can become variants. Some emerging variants disappear and others persist.
What do we know about the new variants?
Currently three variants of the virus have been identified in the U.S. which spread more easily and faster than previous variants.
UK Variant: What you need to know
One of the first variants to arrive in the US was the UK variant identified last fall. This variant is also referred to as B.1.1.7. According to CDC reports, this is expected to become the dominant variant in March.
Recent studies in the UK report that this variant may be more fatal than others. Further research is needed to confirm this. The variant was first detected in a US case last December.
South Africa Variant: What you need to know
The South African variant is known as B1.351 or 501Y.V2 and was first identified last October. This variant was first detected in a US case in late January.
Brazil Variant: What you need to know
The Brazil variant, also known as P.1, was identified in Brazilian travelers at an airport in Japan in January. Additional mutations in this variant may impact it being identifiable by antibodies. The mutations present a danger of reinfection and potential diminished vaccine efficacy if the variant is able evade our immune system. This variant was first detected in a US case in late January.
What we don’t know about the variants
Will the new variants impact the efficacy of the vaccine?
According to nature, scientists are still debating whether the new variants will impact the effectiveness of the current COVID-19 vaccines. There are vaccine developers that plan to update their shots to target the variants.
According to CNBC, the FDA may eliminate the lengthy clinical trial requirement for COVID-19 vaccines modified to work against the variants. Pfizer and Moderna are already working on modifying their vaccines given the variants and the current mutation rate. HR managers should monitor the variants that enter their workplace. They should have a system to keep track who has been vaccinated with the current vaccine and who receives the variant modified vaccines.
Further research is needed to identify how effectively the current vaccines work against the UK, Brazil, and South Africa variants.
Do the new variants impact the accuracy of COVID-19 tests?
The FDA has noted that the new COVID-19 variants may cause molecular tests to generate false negatives. Further studies are needed to identify the impact each new variant may have on the accuracy of COVID-19 tests.
Proactive health safety measures can help you prevent outbreaks
33 states have specific workplace safety measures
At least 33 states in the US have made screening employees for COVID-19 prior to arriving to work a requirement.
Health screening for work should be a requirement, if not already
Health screenings for work should be a requirement to ensure employee safety. Businesses will need to implement multiple health safety measures to manage the new variants and increased COVID-19 cases. Even organizations without state, local, or public health screening guidelines should make screening employees a requirement to prevent outbreaks,
Logging close contacts in the workplace is essential before employees report positive for a rapid response
California’s OSHA requires employers send exposure notifications to employees, contractors, and other employers within 24 hours. These notifications are to inform them that they were exposed to someone infected COVID-19. All business owners should send notifications to potentially exposed employees as soon as possible to prevent outbreaks.
Employers should have access to a platform where they can easily see which employees were exposed to the virus. Additionally, employees should be able to easily report their close contacts to create a safe and healthy workplace.
Encouraging and tracking vaccine adoption can help you achieve herd immunity
Despite what we don’t know about how vaccine efficacy is impacted by variants, it is still best to get vaccinated. The current vaccines will still have the benefit of strengthening your immune system overall and potentially lessen the impact of a COVID-19 variant infection. As Dr. Fauci notes, the vaccines provide protection from the virus and prevent emergence of new variants. Widespread vaccination is crucial to prevent new strains and mutations.
Time to review your safety protocols and ensure they will meet this new challenge
In the next few months, you will see a dramatic rise in cases due to the variants. Employers should feel confident that their pandemic safety program can handle it. Companies that do not prepare may face losses in productivity.
If your current process is manual, you will need more employees to manage the information. As the variants spread and new cases arise, you will need to hire more employees. Are you currently using paper-based screening surveys and manual contact tracers? Automating these processes can be more cost-effective and enables management to take action in real time to prevent outbreaks.
If your current solution is digital, does it meet all your needs? Employers should evaluate their current solution to ensure it meets all their pandemic safety requirements. Does their screening solution encourage and track compliance? Are administrators easily able to track close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases?
Employers, especially those for larger organizations should consider risk mitigation strategies. A broad based testing program allows organizations to identify asymptomatic cases and infection hotspots. Finally, employers should have a system in place to keep track of vaccines and workplace immunity levels.
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