Is it safe to go back to the office after you get vaccinated?

is it safe to go to the office after the vaccine
Photo via Jim Rosebery/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Vaccination rollouts have allowed many retail businesses, restaurants, and schools to reopen as COVID-19 cases continue to trend downward. One aspect of American life that has yet to pivot back to a return to normal, however, is that the office workforce is still largely working remotely. But some are wondering, is this a safety issue or a matter of convenience? And, generally speaking, is it safe to go to the office after you get the vaccine?

According to USA Today, employee office visits in 10 large cities reached an average of just 26% for the week ending April 21, compared to the same capacity from before the pandemic. Texas metro areas accounted for the highest averages, topping out at 41% in Dallas. New York and San Francisco came in last at 16% and 14%, respectively. 

And with that average up from only 23% in mid-January, it doesn’t appear that office employees are in a hurry to return to desks and cubicles anytime soon. Even when many parts of the country reopened in the summer of 2020, the percentage of onsite office workers never rose above the low to mid-20s.

This data was collected by Kastle Systems, the largest provider of corporate security and technology solutions which tracks keycard swipes and other devices.

“While the return to office is picking up slowly, we have not seen meaningful movement yet,” Kastle Chairman Mark Ein told USA Today. “It’s a very low number.”

Yet, Ein remains optimistic, as more and more people continue to receive COVID-19 shots. People 65 and over, who tend to be retired, are currently leading vaccination rates—making up 68% of the vaccinated population. He believes that many office buildings could be open as soon as July 2021 when most employees have been fully vaccinated.

“We think you’re going to see many more people coming to the office in the summer,” Ein said.

But that remains to be seen. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Dr. Shantanu Nundy—chief medical officer of Accolade, a healthcare solutions provider—and Dr. Marty Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, argue that a lack of federal guidance is what’s really keeping office employees home.

The question of is it safe to go to the office after you get the vaccine isn’t easy to answer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not issued formal guidelines for corporations looking to reopen. Without science leading the way to determine if it is safe to bring employees back to the office after they get the vaccine, business leaders have been forced to use public opinion to lead their decision-making processes.

But this can be a confusing approach, especially when you consider conflicting headlines in the media and political rhetoric presenting distorted risks of infection—eschewing best medical practices in the process. Some businesses even plan to require testing even for vaccinated employees, which “is not grounded in data or clinical wisdom,” according to the Post.

The lack of CDC guidance also opens businesses up to potential legal risk.

“Clear guidance would consider criteria such as the percent of residents vaccinated and local rates of infection and establish clear thresholds,” the piece explains. “It would also answer questions that employers ask us time and again: Should they return to in-person working in phases? Should phasing depend on immune status? How should daily symptom checks, temperature checks, contact tracing, and measures change for employees who are immune?”

But that’s not to say that safe and effective reopening measures are impossible to plan and execute.

NEJM Catalyst—a nonprofit that brings together healthcare executives, clinical leaders, and clinicians directly involved in healthcare delivery—recently published a paper detailing a COVID-19 return-to-work strategy for essential businesses.

To develop a viable solution, the authors of the paper partnered with a large manufacturing company with significant on-site service and installation needs. The multi-pronged approach factored in employee worksite safety, symptom monitoring, quarantine, contact tracing, and return-to-work verification to create a comprehensive program.

Not only did the program yield high employee engagement and satisfaction, but it provided an almost 3-to-1 return on investment. As Nundy and Makary argue, this is the type of guidance that should be coming “from the top.”

Will businesses require employees to return to offices?

Safety issues aside, it’s impossible to ignore that the pandemic inherently changed corporate culture as we know it. Some industries, such as law firms which tend to be less tech-savvy and more reliant on paper documents due to sensitive materials, may bounce back quicker. But for others, a flexible work-from-home strategy might be here to stay.

Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, found in a December 2020 study that 90% of HR leaders at 130 companies plan to let employees work remotely at least part-time even after the pandemic is “over.”

Paul Leonard—a managing consultant at CoStar, a commercial real estate research firm—told USA Today that he thinks employee office visits should only reach at least 50% after Labor Day and 80% by the end of the year.

He estimates that 10% of the workforce will continue to work entirely remotely. Of the remaining 90%, he thinks one-third will return to the office five days a week and two-thirds of workers will split time between the office and home.

After you get the vaccine, is it safe to …

Sources: USA Today, Washington Post, NEJM

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