As COVID-19 delta variant spreads, companies weigh vaccine mandates

Masks at work are back, and microbiologist Dr. Amber Schmidtke, Ph.D, chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Saint Mary University, knows masking up feels like a step backwards.

"It's hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube," Schmidtke says.  "When people got used to not wearing a mask in the workplace, it's hard to not get us back into that rhythm."

Still, Schmidtke, who writes an online newsletter covering the pandemic in Georgia, and Dr. Felipe Lobelo, an epidemiologist with Kaiser Permanente Georgia, agree face masks and social distancing in the workplace are a must right now.

A study found those infected with the delta variant can carry up to 1,000 times the viral load of those infected by earlier strains of the coronavirus.

"The jury is still out in terms of how as a society we react to this step back with delta," Dr. Lobelo says.  "It's clear that for the foreseeable future, we are going to expect more cases, more hospitalizations."

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Lobelo says companies are increasingly looking at requiring employees to get vaccinated.

"Obviously, there is a grey line in terms of forcing someone to be vaccinated, particularly with a vaccine that is still available under an emergency use authorization," Dr. Lobelo says.  "That's why it's going to be important that the FDA provides a full clearance, as soon as possible." 

Full FDA approval could open the door for more private employers to mandate vaccinations, Lobelo and Schmidtke say.

"In some places what they're doing is saying, 'Get the shot or or get ready to do weekly testing and wear a mask,'" Schmidtke says. "So, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to do it, but there are sort of consequences for not doing it.  And, I think a lot of it is inspired by the idea that those who are vaccinated are tired of being inconvenienced for those who choose not to."

Many major companies are choosing to delay their plans to return to the office into the fall, because of the highly contagious delta variant and new data that shows vaccinated people can experience breakthrough infections and spread the virus.

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Having a mixture of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees working together can also be tricky for companies.

"It demonstrates you don't have a strong safety culture in your workplace, and that may impact morale," Schmidtke says. "In a lot of ways, (it's hard) to not be able to trust your workmate, that they care about you."

Dr. Lobelo says he is not opposed to bringing employees back into the office, if everyone is vaccinated.

"I think private businesses are going to play a big role in helping us curb this fourth wave by increasing vaccination rates, or helping to increase vaccination rate," Lobelo says.  "But, also, we need to be doing testing much more than we're doing."

People who test positive should isolate at home for a minimum of 10 days, even if they have been vaccinated.

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