COVID Policies at Work Require Best Evidence

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On June 21, the Employers Association of New Jersey hosted its sixteenth webinar on COVID-19 workplace issues.  The state’s governor had just lifted the public health emergency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had issued new guidance relating to recommended precautions for people who were fully vaccinated. Among other things, fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) had also issued guidance, explaining that unvaccinated individuals remained a threat to themselves and others at work and therefore, employers needed to take safety precautions.   

“It was quite clear that some employers would be faced with a management dilemma,” says John Sarno, the association’s president who explained the legal implications on the webinar.   

OSHA was still recommending employers protect unvaccinated workers with masks, medical screening and distancing at work.

Since the June webinar, data shows the virus spreading quickly in New Jersey. COVID-19 cases are rising and an increasing number of infected patients are ending up hospitalized.

According to one respected academic model, by November thousands of people could again be hospitalized with COVID-19 and the daily death toll could reach as much as ten times the current level.

The vast majority of the New Jerseyans now being infected, hospitalized and dying from the coronavirus are not vaccinated, state health officials continue to stress.

However, on July 27th, the CDC reported an increase of “breakthrough infections” with the Delta variant of the virus in people who were fully vaccinated. Accordingly, new guidance has been issued informing vaccinated individuals in areas of high or substantial Covid-19 transmission that they should resume wearing masks.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties have high or substantial transmission of Covid-19, according to CDC data; 46% of counties have high transmission and 17% have substantial transmission.  A review of the CDC map puts Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean, Monmouth, Burlington, and Union counties on the list.

In a statement, Governor Murphy and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli strongly recommended masking, regardless of vaccination status, in:

•    crowded indoor spaces;
•    situations involving close contact with those who may not be fully vaccinated,
•    situations where the vaccine status of others isn’t known,
•    situations where a person who is immunocompromised or at risk for severe disease is present. Examples would be someone who is a transplant recipient, or has diabetes or lung disease.

New Jersey law requires that health and safety standards imposed by executive order cannot exceed CDC guidance, although Sarno points out that employers are permitted to impose stricter requirements regarding mask-wearing and social distancing in indoor settings for employees.

“Regardless of transmission rates, employers have discretion to implement their own policies,” says Sarno.

According to an EANJ survey in June, about half of employer-members require unvaccinated workers to wear masks at work and about one in four require masks regardless of vaccination status.  

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