As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has once again issued new guidance on August 11, 2022.
The CDC has revised its guidance several times since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. However, this time, some commentators see the latest revisions to the CDC’s updated guidance as signaling a strategic shift in the pandemic. Many also see it as reaching the new normal given the existence of vaccines, immunity, and treatments. As Greta Massetti, PhD, MPH, MMWR author stated, “[t]his guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”
What has changed?
The CDC has further loosened its COVID-19 guidance and – in particular – its guidance related isolation. The main change is that individuals, regardless of their vaccination status, are no longer recommended to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, as long as they don’t feel sick. Instead, exposed individuals should get tested after five days and wear a high-quality mask around others for ten (10) days.
The CDC did reiterate its policy of isolation for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and those who are sick and suspect that they have COVID-19 but do not have a test yet. If positive, individuals should still isolate for at least five days in their home. The CDC further recommends that such individuals wear a high-quality mask for ten (10) days after the onset of symptoms or they may remove their mask sooner, if they have two sequential negative tests 48 hours apart.
More importantly (for us), what does this mean for employers?
The loosening of isolation recommendations by the CDC will likely make it easier for employers to require their employees return to the physical workplace. Employers could become one step closer to reaching pre-pandemic levels in the office. Since the CDC guidelines only recommend isolation for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or are sick and suspect they have COVID-19, fewer employees are recommended to stay home. Consequently, employers could require exposed employees still come into the workplace, provided they don’t feel sick, and wear a mask.
Of course, as we discussed in prior blog posts, What the CDC’s Latest Mask Guidance Means for Employers, employers may implement and maintain current COVID-19 protocols that exceed what the CDC is recommending. Masks can prevent severe illness and individuals can choose to wear them at any time, even if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed.
In a previous iteration of its masking guidance, the CDC had identified other factors that may be helpful to employers in evaluating whether stricter protocols are appropriate: higher county risk levels; settings with more unvaccinated people; indoor settings with poor ventilation; inability to maintain social distancing; and activities that include shouting, physical exertion or heavy breathing, and the inability to wear a mask, among other things. We suggest that employers may also wish to consider that employees at high risk of severe illness may be impacted by these loosened standards (and require accommodations if their exposed-but-not-symptomatic-coworkers are in the office)).
In addition, as we previously noted, employers should realize that there may be resistance to stricter protocols from some employees, managers, and visitors, and be prepared to address that. Clear and specific communication about what the protocols are and why they are required is helpful. And an employer can usually discipline employees for failing to comply with stricter employer-mandated protocols.
No matter what employers decide, with lessened restrictions and more liberal CDC guidance, it is clear that more employees could return to the workplace. We suggest employers think three moves ahead to make sure they have this evolving challenge covered!