In what may have come as a surprise to many, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on 13 May that fully vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks indoors, except in hospitals and medical settings, public transportation, and where mandated by a private business. Since then, in the U.S, we have had most states and cities partially, and some completely, lift COVID-19 restrictions as we exceed 50 percent vaccination rates in vulnerable populations.
It’s important to note that the CDC’s role in the U.S. is to interpret and present public health evidence for policymakers who then decide what the evidence means for public policy and for behavioural guidelines. While it’s clear that the CDC’s intent was to encourage vaccinations, they received some pushback across the board for overstepping in providing guidance rather than evidence and creating mass (and mask) confusion across the country. To add to the confusion, the guidance has evolved into a difference of opinion as the World Health Organisation continues to recommend mask-wearing indoors, even for those who have received a vaccine.
While many were caught off guard by the announcement, others noted the timing. Indeed, had the CDC said that these guidelines would go into effect in September, it would have made far more sense to many. As it stands now, schools are closing for the summer, children are at home and many parents may not have plans lined up for them should they be required to return to the office in person. How can people expect to go back into offices without having childcare in place? The pandemic has further stressed working mothers and women who are dropping out of the workforce at record numbers to take care of children or families.
Given the euphoria we all feel at the easing of the epidemic and relations of restrictions (we get to hug our vaccinated friends and relatives again!), we are still in a transitional period in the U.S. Hard won gains can be eroded by complacency and by spread of variants, such as Delta (B.1.177.1), which today makes up about 50 percent of U.S. infections, but has the possibility of rapidly become a major problem in states with low vaccination rates.
Transitioning to ‘Normal’
As a country, we’re making progress in returning to ‘normal’ life but there are still a lot of work to do. Given the role that variants are playing today (more efficient transmission proven; enhanced ability to cause disease being studied still) the strategy of vaccinating all adults (and soon all children) is clearly supported by the evidence. Whether any country can truly achieve this without a full lockdown of borders, which the U.S. has not done, is still an open question. Making vaccination a requirement for international travel and entry to the US is still a hotly debated question. At present, vaccination is not a requirement to travel to the US, but a negative PCR test within the past 72 hours is.
Given the overwhelming evidence that the shots are protective (against symptomatic disease and death) for all recipients, in May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that employers are within their rights to demand vaccination for returning workers. For example, in June, a federal judge ruled for a Texas hospital that mandated vaccines for all workers. None of this is unexpected, and we shall see many other judgements along similar lines.
But why is this period transitional? Although the vaccines are working even better than we could have hoped, there is no guarantee we can’t go backwards at any point. This guidance can, and very well likely, change, morph, or be updated. Most importantly, the pandemic is far from over in the world – countries like the U.S. cannot take a “go it alone” approach and after a year of intense domestic focus we are seeing a return to multilateral diplomatic and emergency efforts to get more vaccine doses to countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa where vaccination rates are still less than 2 percent, and which are now experiencing significant and deadly waves of infection.
Getting more vaccine into vulnerable groups in every country is the only approach to stopping the pandemic’s impact. This will be a long slog over the next 2 years as we ramp up vaccine production, distribution, and access for the whole world.
How Palladium is Reopening
Palladium has been closely tracking multiple parameters to make key decisions about a return to office work throughout the pandemic. In alignment with local regulations at the city and state levels, we have already started a soft reopening of our Washington, DC office and expect to allow a larger number throughout the summer.
Many of our peer organisations in the international development and consulting spaces have differing timelines and expectations for office reopening, and Palladium is tracking all of this carefully. We have collectively updated our office physical environment to align with evidence, for example, we know that ventilation is very important, so significant improvements have been undertaken by our building management. Modified social distancing and mask-wearing will continue to be the rule indoors for the foreseeable future. If all returning staff are fully vaccinated then masks can be made optional in the office but are still required to enter the building and elevators.
And although the U.S. and a few other countries may be transitioning to some kind of normal, in most of the rest of the world, the situation is still dire. Many of our employees and staff live and reside in many countries where vaccine access is still a distant dream, and we must not only be sensitive to this, but do all in our power to help change it.
One thing that might return soon is work travel for the fully vaccinated and the willing. The pandemic has interrupted our standard ways of doing business and prevented the kind of in-person sharing so essential to our work. As we’ve seen over the past year, a successful transition requires flexibility and responsiveness from everyone across an organisation and I’m proud of the way our team has come together to ensure an eventual safe return to the office for everyone.
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