As the first trucks filled with COVID-19 vaccines rolled out from the Pfizer production facility, the world took a moment to envision a hopeful future and its possibilities. Being able to embrace parents and grandparents. Enjoying leisure activities with confidence, whether it’s a trip to the movies or a family vacation. Even the thought of heading back into the workplace brings a thrill of excitement to remote-weary families.
Roll-out of the vaccine to the general public could come as early as April, and more likely into the summer for younger, low-risk individuals. Vaccines for children under the age of 12 are still in preliminary stages of research and development and are not expected to ship before the new school year. This creates somewhat of a “dream delayed” scenario for those wishing for a rapid return to normal life.
There are a few factors playing into the speed with which we will return to our former way of life. Some rely on patience and time, others rely on confidence.
The vaccine reality
There are many things we still don’t know about the vaccine and its general operation. While a clinical trial of over 43,000 people showed the vaccines produced by Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna to have over 90% efficacy (meaning for every 10 people that receive both portions of the vaccine, nine will experience immunity), less is known about how the vaccine actually works within the body.
How it works
Duration: We know that the vaccine grants 90% immunity; however, scientists are unsure for how long that immunity will last. In the case of naturally acquired immunity (through contracting and recovering from the virus) early reports suggested that natural antibodies would remain active for 5-7 months. A newer study suggests that the immunity granted after recovery could last much longer — a hopeful proposition for scientists looking to keep immunity levels high in the community.
Method: Another factor that time will reveal is exactly how the new vaccines protect people. Unlike the traditional flu vaccine – which uses an altered or inactivated version of influenza to provoke an immune response – the COVID-19 vaccine uses mRNA technology (the first time the technology has been used in this way, though the theory behind its use has been in development for decades). Think of mRNA as a code with instructions on how to fight the virus. Once injected, the body goes to work creating proteins to use to develop an immune response.
What isn’t known as of yet? It’s unclear whether those instructions will simply protect against infection, or also prevent the body from replicating and shedding virus that could potentially infect others. If the latter proves to be true, “normal” could take a lot more time, as a higher percentage of vaccination would be required to create widespread immunity. In an office setting, this would mean that vaccination could be necessary to bringing everyone back together safely.
The threshold of herd immunity – the percentage at which a population can expect widespread immunity from the virus and the immunocompromised can reasonably expect protection through vaccinated counterparts – is still a way off. Experts estimate a requirement of 80-90% immunity would be necessary to guarantee widespread protection and a reduction of community spread. This leads to the larger discussion: how to get hundreds of millions of people both willing and able to be vaccinated.
The most important factor in the return to normal working life will always come down to the human factor: how secure do people feel in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine? This issue has become a major concern to public health officials, who see surveys reporting that nearly half the public (and higher numbers when broken down by socioeconomic or race demographics) trust the vaccine and plan to be vaccinated when it is available to them.
That lack of confidence could seriously hamper the race for herd immunity, resulting in a slower economic recovery. That recovery, of course, forms part of the equation that would let businesses open their offices, welcome back employees, and begin their own recovery process.
The office of the (near) future: What to expect
In the coming year, there are few things we can expect to see in the average workplace.
- A stronger embrace of hybrid work
Whatever effect the vaccine will have on our way of life in the mid and long-term, the pandemic has ushered in a new world of work and a different set of expectations for people. One of the effects of our sudden exodus from the office was the realization that business really can function, even thrive, in a heavily remote setting.
Companies have already expressed a willingness to embrace flexibility, with many organizations including Twitter, Reddit, and Hubspot offering hybrid work and the opportunity for workers to elect. As companies realize the benefits of hybrid work, expect to see more flexibility in the workplace over time.
- Continued masking and social distancing
Although the rapid development of the vaccine has raised hopes globally for a return to normalcy, expect current distancing practices and masking requirements to continue in the immediate future. The progress toward herd immunity and more information about the long-term efficacy of the vaccine will likely continue over much of 2021, so we may not be “back to normal” for some time.
Even after the pandemic subsides, these new work customs may continue to prevail in the office. They reduce the overall transmission of pathogens (not just COVID, but influenza and the common cold). Plus, it may take some time for us to trust our new reality. For example, many Eastern societies have continued to mask after dangerous outbreaks such as SARS and MERS. In Japan, masking while feeling under the weather is customary, and seen as a polite gesture to those they may come into contact with.
- Possible debate over requiring vaccinations
One of the major topics of conversation as the vaccine rolls out: whether employers will require vaccination in the office in the same way schools require them for students. Public health experts argue that mandatory vaccination is the best way to ensure maximum adoption of the vaccine as a matter of public safety. Many have proposed that businesses are positioned to help this effort by making it a condition of returning to the office.
On the other side, a wide array of state laws and regulations govern whether employers can make vaccination mandatory. Politics will add another layer to the discussion about what role business can and should play in the vaccination effort.
Don’t plan on office COVID-19 clinics
One staple of the pre-pandemic workplace was the custom of employers offering low cost or free influenza vaccination to its employees on-site as a matter of convenience and workplace wellness. Though these vaccine opportunities have worked out well for employers with the standard flu vaccine, people shouldn’t expect an annual COVID-19 “clinic day” any time soon for a few reasons:
- The mRNA COVID-19 vaccine currently in production requires a two-part booster delivered at a three-week interval to be fully effective. This may not lend itself to ease of delivery.
- The current vaccine is fragile, relying on a strict level of deep freezing to maintain integrity. While the standard flu vaccine requires refrigeration (at typical food refrigeration temperatures) the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine must be kept at super-low temperatures – as low as -94°f. The delicacy of the vaccine makes it unlikely as a candidate for in-office distribution.
Getting ready for the future
No matter what the future holds, rising to the challenge of the changing workplace will require planning, community effort, and confidence in our organizations and colleagues to do what’s best for each other.
If you’re looking for the tools that can help you create a safe workplace and bring back some predictability, Robin can help. Talk to us about your 2021 plans today.