The OSHA vaccinate or test mandate is officially dead, yet many questions remain for how employers can best move forward this year. Variations on the mandate remain applicable for certain businesses (see healthcare) and in select cities and states.
Absent regulation, many companies are still forging ahead with vaccination and regular testing programs. The burden of implementing these programs often falls to the human resources department. It’s a monumental task for HR professionals to map out how to effectively manage vaccination and testing across a large, diverse employee base (on top of other pre-pandemic duties).
UKG and Healthcare IT Leaders convened a recent webinar to help make sense of the options available for companies implementing or considering vaccine management and testing programs. Our experts were joined by Dr. Patrice Harris, co-founder and CEO of eMed, who provided insight on what we can expect with COVID-19 in 2022, and how employers can utilize testing and other strategies to keep workplaces safe. Below are six key takeaways for HR professionals to consider.
COVID-19 isn’t going away
The virus is stubborn. As Omicron declines, it's likely more COVID-19 variants are to come. Dr. Harris predicts that COVID-19 will transition from the pandemic phase to an endemic—like the seasonal flu—once people have developed immunity through vaccination or infection. It'll remain a recurring disease that regularly spreads, yet viral infections won't cause the high hospitalization or mortality rates that we've seen since 2020.
Although everyone is anxious to resume "business as usual" circa 2019, it's not yet time to let up on safety protocols. Dr. Harris explained that testing is just as necessary today as at the beginning of the pandemic. "Testing can give us so much information about who's infected, where are the hotspots, what should I do as an individual, and certainly, what employers should do to keep the workplace safe," said Harris.
At-home tests work for the workplace
An at-home (over-the-counter) test and one you’d receive from a provider are both effective in detecting the COVID-19 antigen.
A key difference is that at-home tests provide verified results within 15-20 minutes without standing in a clinic waiting line during valuable work hours. Beware, though! Dr. Harris emphasized that there are “bad actors” on the market. Always check that an at-home test is FDA EUA authorized before use.
Andrew Lux, Director of COVID-19 Managed Services at Healthcare IT Leaders, explained that companies may choose a combination of tests and testing approaches when implementing a screening strategy. It's all about personalizing for each type of employee, shift schedule, and location, as every test has "pros and cons," said Lux.
Supply is fluid, but tests are available
Although it may be challenging to pick up OTC tests from the local pharmacy at the moment, tests are still available for bulk purchases by enterprise buyers to support ongoing testing programs. By leveraging our existing relationships with manufacturers and distributors, Healthcare IT Leaders offers employers accessibility and flexibility for test procurement, so "everything is driven on utilization, and you're only paying for what you need," said Lux.
Testing frequency is up to the employer
There isn't a magic formula for how often employees should take a test. Building a plan that meets the unique needs of the workplace will require collaboration. For an effective task force, Dr. Harris advises convening leaders from disciplines across the company to discuss factors that will impact a testing program, such as whether employees have the ability for physical distancing or if close contact is inevitable.
As a starting point, Dr. Harris recommends testing once a week. Then, scale the testing regimen up (2-3 times a week) or down (bi-weekly) based on community spread and localized outbreaks.
Use technology to efficiently track employee data
Save the headache from manually logging information via spreadsheet by investing in a technology solution that automatically routes incoming results and provides real-time reports on compliance. A comprehensive digital platform "takes something that is rather complex and starts to put it in a way that is much easier from an implementation standpoint, as well as the support required around it," said Lux.
Lux outlined an everyday use case for this. Let's say employees are required to take an at-home test Sunday night before the workweek begins. An HR professional can instantly produce a report that verifies results and flags missing or positive. With this information in hand, a team can better hit the ground running with action planning come Monday morning.
This approach also benefits employees, who will have access to easy self-service options for reporting vaccination status, uploading weekly testing results, and submitting/tracking exemption requests.
Make sure to select a platform that seamlessly integrates with your HR systems of record, adds Nicole Nelson, Lead Solution Consultant of UKG. Nelson previews an end-to-end platform that works for UKG and non-UKG users in our on-demand webinar.
Clear communication of process and policies are paramount
One obstacle employers may face with compliance is bogging employees down with information overload. Get everyone on board by establishing an internal communication strategy before launch. Consider setting up:
- Documentation such as a step-by-step walkthrough for painless adoption of a new testing process
- Connection to troubleshooting support such as FAQs on your company website or intranet
- An office point-person or task force for additional employee assistance
Dr. Harris shared a final message with HR professionals leading the company charge:
"Here's one thing we know. There will be future viruses and future pandemics. Our job is to learn a lesson from this one. So the very next time we see a virus... if we learn the lessons from this one, we'll be able to attack it immediately."