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If a return to normal appeared on the horizon at the outset of 2021 thanks to the arrival and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, the spread of the delta variant and then the highly infectious omicron variant by the end of the year brought turbulence to a country eager to emerge from the pandemic.
So far in 2022, the sheer volume of COVID cases has led to an all-time high of hospitalized patients with the virus, the reverberations of which are felt among non-COVID patients who are waiting longer than usual to be seen at urgent care clinics and are being forced to suspend non-emergency procedures. Already facing serious staffing shortages, health care systems have sounded the alarm, urging people to get vaccinated and continue masking to slow the influx of patients in their facilities.
Meanwhile, the omicron spike has delayed return-to-the-office plans, forced some schools to revert to virtual instruction and prompted the cancellation of some large-scale events.
BizTimes associate editor Lauren Anderson recently caught up with Dr. John Raymond, Sr., president and chief executive officer of the Medical College of Wisconsin, who provided a public health outlook for the year and advice for employers who continue to navigate the disruption brought on by the pandemic.
Editor’s note: As COVID cases and projections change daily, note that Raymond’s answers reflect a mid-January press time.
BizTimes: How long is omicron expected to run its course? And then what happens next?
Raymond: “Omicron is expected to peak within the next two weeks, and to wane over the following six to eight weeks. We should watch carefully how the omicron surge continues to progress in South Africa, U.K. and Denmark, but more importantly in U.S. cities that are about 10 days ahead of us in the spread of omicron, such as New York, Boston and Chicago. After the omicron surge abates, we will need to be vigilant for the emergence of new variants.”
BizTimes: There’s a lot of talk of the coronavirus becoming endemic in 2022. How, on a practical level, will that change how we live with and manage it?
Raymond: “It is possible that COVID-19 will become endemic in 2022. What that means on a day-to-day practical level is that we will have achieved somewhat of a steady state in terms of background levels of COVID-19, and that we will have achieved a new equilibrium between public health measures and restoring some semblance of our pre-pandemic life. This transition will not be like flipping a switch but will occur more gradually over time.”
BizTimes: How can employers manage COVID fatigue among their employees?
Raymond: “COVID-19 fatigue is a real challenge for all of us. Employers should be consistent with messages that are easy to understand and are based on concern about the health and safety of their employees and customers.”
BizTimes: How do you expect COVID will affect workplaces moving forward this year? And what would you recommend employers do related to their offices?
Raymond: “Office reopening plans should be deferred until March 1, 2022, if possible, to allow the omicron surge to abate.”
BizTimes: Do you expect more employers to begin requiring booster shots for employees?
Raymond: “Yes, but I believe that fewer employers will require boosters than required full vaccination, because 1) mandates are difficult and contentious, 2) tracking boosters poses logistical difficulties, and 3) fully vaccinated but not boosted still provides a strong measure of protection from hospitalization and death from COVID-19 (at least based on what we know as of early January 2022).”
BizTimes: In addition to fatigue, some feel as though the goalposts continue to move in terms of what they’re expected to do (masking, no masking, vaccines, boosters, etc.). What would you say to those who are frustrated with changing CDC recommendations?
Raymond: “This virus (not the CDC or public health officials) has moved the goalposts by constantly improving its ability to infect human beings. The CDC is doing its best to communicate changing guidelines for a dynamic, shapeshifting virus. The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any public health challenge that we have faced in over a century. Resistance to simple public health interventions has kindled misinformation, politicized science, demonized health care workers and has prolonged the pandemic.”
BizTimes: Any other important messages you think business leaders need to know for the upcoming year?
Raymond: “Encourage vaccinations and mitigation measures, beginning and ending from a position of concern for the safety, health and well-being of their employees and customers.”