The COVID vaccine is finally here, becoming increasingly accessible with each passing day and allowing us to move closer to a sense of normalcy. Schools, offices, bars, restaurants, and movie theaters have started to reopen. The U.S. is anticipating a near-normal Fourth of July. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As we get a glimpse of post-pandemic life, companies are starting to encourage employees to return to the office. CDC guidelines state that workplace testing can help prevent or reduce transmission of the disease, but with the arrival of vaccines, is COVID testing still necessary?
The short answer is yes. Here are three reasons why COVID testing is still a good idea.
1. Vaccine Hesitancy
More than half of adults surveyed in February 2021 say they have either received one shot of the COVID vaccine already or they will get the vaccine once it is available to them. That’s up from 34% in December 2020. Still, many people are concerned about the side effects or the vaccine’s speedy development. The fact is there is vaccine hesitancy in every demographic. To reach herd immunity, the vast majority of the population must be vaccinated and keep their shots up to date. Until that happens, outbreaks will continue.
2. Development of Variants
Similar to the flu, SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, mutates. Mutations are little errors that may occur as the cells replicate themselves. Most mutations die out or do not affect how the virus reproduces, but a select few allow the virus to spread more readily. Such is the case for B.1.1.7, the U.K. variant that is assumed to be 50% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain. Another variant, B.1.135, found in South Africa, may be able to reinfect people who have already had COVID-19. Additional variants have been found in Brazil, New York, and California. New variants continue to be discovered regularly.
The same strategies we have used in the past — hand-washing, face masks, and social distancing — will continue to protect us against the variants. But the virus evolves when we congregate, giving it ample opportunity to develop additional fast-spreading mutations. It’s important that we continue to take prudent measures to curb transmission, including workplace testing.
3. COVID Vaccine Effectiveness Against Variants
There are currently three vaccines available in the U.S. They are produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Since the clinical trials were not identical, it is difficult to compare their results directly. For example, Johnson & Johnson was tested after the U.K. and South Africa variants emerged. Pfizer and Moderna, with their impressively high efficacy rates, were tested before the variants. This may explain why Johnson & Johnson has an overall efficacy rate below that of Pfizer and Moderna.
However, according to the World Health Organization, vaccines generate a broad immune response, meaning that each vaccine should provide some protection. Preliminary research shows that the current vaccines would reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from the variant, even though overall protection may not be as good.
A fourth vaccine, by Novavax, is expected to gain FDA approval by May 2021. In trials, Novavax’s vaccine is 89% effective in protecting against COVID-19 and 85.6% effective against the U.K. variant. However, it is less than 50% effective against the South African variant. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is not yet approved in the U.S. In a small trial, it was found to be less effective in preventing mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, though a recent larger clinical trial was more successful. The vaccine can protect recipients from severe illness, hospitalization, and death, even from the new variants.
One thing is clear: Variants will continue to emerge, complicating efforts to control SARS-CoV-2 for some time. That makes it all the more important to ensure a reliable testing strategy, especially for employees who experience symptoms or travel often.
Why It’s Important to Still Have a COVID Testing Solution
Many experts claim COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for future challenges. We don’t want to downplay the devastation of this pandemic, but it has given us the opportunity to prepare. Businesses must take steps to limit outbreaks as people head back to work and offices reopen. If your company already has a COVID testing solution, keep it in place for the foreseeable future. Or ask us how we can help you establish one.
Testing can make your back-to-business transition easier and safer by identifying whether an employee has the disease, even if they are asymptomatic. It can ensure workers’ peace of mind and provide you with the critical information you need to foster a safe work environment. Alongside your testing partner, your company can deliver clear communication regarding the test, the results, and how the results will be used. The CDC recommends that employers put in place specific plans for their businesses:
- Represent a collaboration with employees and unions.
- Cover all jobs and areas with potential exposure to COVID-19.
- Provide policies so that everyone knows what’s expected of them if they are ill. (Stay home!)
- Support workers with flexible and non-punitive leave policies.
In addition to your testing program, you may want to consider offering vaccinations. Additional CDC guidelines still apply, of course, including masking, distancing, frequent hand-washing, and personal protective equipment where needed. Your company may also incorporate a more comprehensive approach to help slow the spread in the workplace, like symptom screening and contact tracing.
Many assume that once we get to herd immunity, we can exhale. Not so fast. Herd immunity timelines aren’t certain. Much of the prognostications depend on how the variants behave. Some regions may reach strong herd immunity, while others may only achieve temporary immunity, or none at all. Complicating matters more, we occupy one, big, connected world. So even when we reach herd immunity in the U.S., risks will not simply vanish.
Yes, COVID-19 vaccines hit the market at warp speed, and yes, there is an aggressive vaccination plan in place. But we’re a long way from putting the coronavirus behind us, and testing will be vital in keeping employees safe.
McKinsey & Company - When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?
Johns Hopkins Medicine - New Variants of Coronavirus: What You Should Know
The Wall Street Journal - WHO Recommends AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine Against South Africa Strain