As companies weigh mandating vaccine, one expert says workplace masks should be a must

At the Viral Solutions testing and vaccination site near the Toco Hills Shopping Center in DeKalb County, Georgia, 800 to 900 people a day are lining up for COVID-19 testing.

The wait on Monday was one to two hours.

But, Riggins Earl came out for a shot, not a test.

It was his third, and Earl sees the coronavirus vaccine as a must.

Workers in scrubs and protective clothing stand inside a testing and vaccination tent as drivers pull through a tented area.

Workers at the Viral Solutions COVID-19 vaccine and testing site in Decatur, Georgia, August 23, 2021. (Eli Jordan, FOX 5 Atlanta)

"What's the alternative," Earl asks. "Certainly, the alternative is not what I would choose."

As word spread the FDA had granted full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for Americans age 16 and older, Viral Solutions' site manager, Nicole Blanding, says they had seen a slight uptick in people coming in for shots.

"Vaccines have increased, but not as much as testing," Blanding says. "We're definitely seeing way more tests here because of the delta variant."

The full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could open the door for more companies to require employees to get vaccinated. 

In Georgia, only 50% of residents have received their first shot.

As the state struggles with a fourth surge in infections, with 5,371 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, microbiologist Dr. Amber Schmidtke, Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Saint Mary in Kansas, is urging companies to require masks, even for those who are vaccinated.

If you go into the office, she says, be vigilant about wearing a mask, especially if you work in a cubicle or a shared office space.

Close up shot of a testing site worker holding a testing sample of a PCR COVID-19 testing kit.

At a Viral Solutions testing site in Decatur, Georgia, on August 23, 2021, an employee holds a COVID-19 testing kit.

"If at all possible, do maintain social distancing, maybe prioritize having lunch outside," Schmidtke says.  "It's good to get fresh air anyway, but avoid those activities where you have to take your mask off inside of that (work) setting."

Your safest bet, Schmidtke says, is to protect yourself as if no one around you is vaccinated.

"Until somebody sort of identifies to you that they're fully vaccinated, I would be very cautious," Schmidtke says. "Again, I don't think, it's not any sort of judgment.   We need to understand this is a virus that doesn't care how much you like or trust a coworker. It's just looking for the next human to infect.  So, we protect ourselves by making sure we are not inviting the virus into our own bodies."

In addition to wearing a mask, Schmidtke recommends trying to stay a few feet apart from your colleagues, covering your cough and regularly washing your hands.

"I am going back to work," she says.  "So, I can relate to some of the anxiety that may come with that. It's great if you're fully vaccinated. If you're not, there is still time to get that process started."

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