Time to Drop the Mask Mandate at Work? Not So Fast

Although COVID-19 infections are setting new records globally, trends in the US have been moving in the right direction – with one important exception. The pace of vaccinations is slowing, sowing concerns about the return to worksites and to a more normal life. With the vaccine supply beginning to outstrip demand, employers are taking a more active role in providing employees the guidance, encouragement and support they need to take the important step of being vaccinated.

More than 400 US employers participated in our latest COVID-19 Survey providing their perspectives on the vaccine and returning to the worksite. Many are providing extra time off for workers to get vaccinated (54%) and recover from side effects (34%) of the vaccine. While others are planning to provide onsite or near-site vaccinations. Few will require proof of vaccination (5%), but almost all will require masks (93%). Or will they? Since we fielded our survey, the CDC announced updated guidelines on mask use for fully vaccinated people.  

While the updated CDC guidelines on mask use for fully vaccinated people reflect the effectiveness of vaccines, it poses challenges for employers as many plan wide scale return to office. Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace while balancing strategies to engage the workforce. What should they do?

Given the need to require a safe workplace with a workforce that will have a mix of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people it may be the simplest to continue the current prevention measures of masks, distance, air quality and hygiene for everyone. In fact the CDC statement included language saying that employers should make their own policies. The alternative would be to establish the vaccination status of the workforce and to have separate safety requirements for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. A third would be to require vaccination and allow people to function at work without masks.

The CDC guidance does state that even with full vaccination there are still places where masks should be worn, particularly during commutes or in crowds where it is impossible to tell what your risk actually is.

The risk of getting seriously ill or dying once vaccinated is close to zero. The risk of getting infected and being asymptomatic and therefore able to pass the virus on is also low. There are some people who – even when vaccinated – have an underlying immune issue that means that they will not get this same level of protection. Not everyone with this condition will be aware of it. So a small, but real risk, remains in the workplace. 

The other concern is the unknown impact of variants that may be able to evade the immunity that people get from the current vaccines. We have not really seen this in the US but the virus is still out there trying to succeed in infecting people so this needs to be watched carefully. Of note, masks have been very effective against all of the variants so far. Bottom line – worksite policy for masks merits careful consideration.

 

Mary Kay O'Neill
by Mary Kay O'Neill

Partner, Clinical Services Consultant

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