What’s the Latest? August 2021 COVID-19 Update Regarding Employer Operational Guidance
Only a few months ago, it seemed workplace operations could begin returning to some level of normalcy. On May 13, 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance that vaccinated individuals could forego masks, social distancing, and other preventive measures without any real risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 or transmitting the virus to others. Thus began much discussion over whether employers could require proof of vaccination, either through vaccination cards or attestations, before allowing employees and visitors to discontinue wearing masks indoors and making other changes to their operations in response to this guidance.
However, in light of the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, the CDC issued updated this guidance on July 27, 2021, including issuing new prevention strategies for decision-makers. While cases and deaths have declined in the United States since the January 2021 peak, in the period June 19-July 23, 2021, cases increased approximately 300% nationally. The CDC guidance indicates vaccinated people can become infected and transmit the Delta variant almost as effectively as the unvaccinated—and the harm this will create to the unvaccinated population is significant.
Factors for employers to assess in determining response strategies include: the level of community transmission, the local health system capacity, vaccination coverage, capacity for early detection, and the populations at risk for severe outcomes. The CDC guidance notes that no single strategy is sufficient to prevent transmission, and multiple interventions should be used concurrently to reduce the spread of disease. Proven effective strategies against COVID-19 transmission, beyond vaccination, include using masks consistently and correctly, maximizing ventilation both through dilution and filtration of air, and maintaining physical distance and avoiding crowds. Basic public health measures such as staying home when sick, handwashing, and regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces should also be encouraged.
Of note for public employers in particular is that, on August 3, 2021, the Supreme Court of Ohio began requiring all employees and visitors in the Thomas J. Moyer Judicial Building to wear facial coverings, regardless of vaccination status. Thus, it seems inevitable universal indoor mask requirements will return to public, and likely private, buildings. This could affect morale for those enjoying the recent optimism of a return to a more normal, mask-free, society. However, employers have the legal authority to require employees and visitors to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and given the concerning rise in cases due to the Delta variant, should give serious consideration to doing so.