Employers Advised to Stay Especially Alert During Ongoing Pandemic Changes

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – The availability of vaccines should not be a signal for employers to let down their guard. In fact, organizations need to be especially vigilant to keep their employees safe and productive and their operations running smoothly, experts say.

From understanding what a vaccine can – and can’t – do, to an uptick in liability suits and the likelihood of increased scrutinization from OSHA and other agencies, employers need to stay focused and take action.

“We can’t say we don’t need to do anything because a vaccine is coming,” said Margaret Spence, president & CEO of C. Douglas & Associates. “We have to go back to some fundamental practices around workers’ compensation and HR in creating policies.”

Spence was among several industry experts who participated in a recent webinar on COVID-19 Employer and Employee Resilience, produced by the Physicians Health Center.

Vaccine Facts

The Food and Drug Administration recently gave the green light to the nation’s first vaccines. But there are some caveats that should be made clear.

“It’s just a tool in the toolbox,” said Adam Seidner, MD, chief Medical Officer of The Hartford. “All the other [tools] still apply.”

In order to achieve ‘herd immunity’ and truly eradicate the virus, 70 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated. The panelists said they expect pushback from many people, with some taking a wait-and-see attitude and others flat out refusing to get the injections.

Also, getting the vaccine may not fully protect a workplace. It is different from other vaccines, and scientists say it may not prevent those who are vaccinated from getting the actual virus.

“The vaccine may prevent CIOVID-19, but part and parcel to immunity, it may not do enough to stop the transmission of sars-cov-2,” Seidner explained. “So you may still get infected and pass it on to someone else.”

There are also logistical challenges. The two most prominent vaccines under review require ultra-cold temperatures, during manufacturing, transporting and storage. That means those who get vaccinated may have to travel to special facilities that can accommodate the colder temperatures, rather than heading to the nearest pharmacy.

One of the main questions about a vaccine is whether employers can require their employers to get it. The current situation is different from those involving other vaccines.

“In healthcare there are vaccine mandates – in the airline industry, in nursing. So it’s not far-fetched for an employer to say, ‘I want to mandate your taking a vaccine,’” Spence said. “But it’s always been for a business reason. This is a little different.”

“I don’t think legally employers will be able to mandate this,” Seidner added. “It might be different in the healthcare world, but it’s going to be kind of a gray area even for healthcare workers and first responders because we’re dealing with ‘emergency use authorization’ [for vaccine approval]. We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Employers who want to encourage their workers to get vaccinated may stand a better chance by educating them, rather than telling them they have to get it, the speakers said.

Guidelines and Enforcement

One recent change that affects some employers is the guidance for how long a person who tests positive or has been exposed to the virus should be quarantined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reduced the recommended time period from 14 to 10 days in some cases, and even 7 days in others. But the specifics need to be understood.

“What the CDC has done is looked at some of the data and done a risk assessment, and based on data, determined there is a small number of residual risk if indeed we let people out of quarantine sooner,” said Deborah Roy, an occupational safety & health consultant with Safetech. “So that time window, based on the data, shrinks a little from the 14 days to 10 days without a test, no symptoms, and they will continue to evaluate whether they develop symptoms. … The residual risk is about 1 percent, so 99 percent of the people would be able to leave quarantine after 10 days and not become positive or spread the disease to others.”

People who quarantine and take a test on day 5, then get a negative result within two days can end their quarantine on day 7.

“If you need to bring somebody back after 10 days, and they continue monitoring themselves and wear a mask, OK,” Roy said. “The potential spread is higher for the 7-day people.”

Adhering to the various guidelines will likely become more important after Jan. 20, when a change in presidency is expected. OSHA, for example, has not levied a plethora of hefty fines related to the pandemic.

“OSHA is not going to be the OSHA we’ve had for the last four years, where enforcement was not something that was done,” Spence said. “We have a new administration coming in, with new expectations. OSHA inspections will be back in the norm. As employers, we have to take that into consideration … go back to OSHA, the CDC guidelines, look at what they said and if you’re not following it to the letter today, I suggest you do that before Jan 21. The new administration will not be as lax with enforcement.”

Liability

Employers may want to double down on their investigations of COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims. There have been increasing instances of claims adjusters assuming a worker who contracted the virus did so outside of work, which opens up the case for civil litigation.

“Morgan & Morgan [law firm] in Florida has gone into the workers’ compensation system – the data is sold so they have access to it, and they’ve gone in and are now saying they are going to take on cases, taking on nursing home cases, taking on cases where employers have employees who have tested positive,” Spence said. “I guarantee by the 2nd quarter of 2021 we are going to see ads [from attorneys] saying, ‘did you test positive for COVID?’ ‘Did you have symptoms?’ ‘Did your employer deny your case?’”

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