News of the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant of concern has the world on alert again.
On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.529, was a variant of concern. In keeping with the WHO’s variant classification system based on the Greek alphabet, the new variant of concern has been named Omicron.
Where has the Omicron COVID-19 variant been detected so far?
Omicron was first identified in South Africa though it is not clear yet where it may have first emerged. Cases have now been reported in several countries across the world, including four provinces in Canada.
What do we know about the Omicron COVID-19 variant so far?
Scientists across the world are currently working to learn more about the impact the new variant may have. Early evidence shows that this variant has a large number of mutations. It may pose a higher risk of reinfection as compared to other variants of concern.
According to the WHO, it is not yet confirmed whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants of concern. Nor it is clear yet how it may affect vaccines. Early Omicron cases have only been detected in younger people who experienced mild symptoms. It may be too soon to say whether it may cause more severe illness or not.
What measures can I take to protect my business and employees during the holiday season?
There is no doubt that emergence of another COVID-19 variant of concern is disconcerting. But there is no cause for panic as of now. To keep your employees and customers safe this holiday season, we recommend that you:
Continue following health and safety measures
Public health experts recommend that people continue following health and safety measures and regulations that have proved effective in reducing the spread of the virus in the past two years. These include wearing masks, physical distancing, getting vaccinated, following hand and respiratory hygiene, avoiding crowded spaces, etc.
Employers should ensure they:
- Have relevant COVID-19 policies in place, such as policies on vaccination, employee travel, recalling staff, sick leave, contact tracing. If you don’t have one already, establish a response protocol in case an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
- Make sure your staff and customers follow the implemented health and safety measures.
- Advise employees to self monitor and stay home if they feel sick or experience any COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms.
- Train you employees on any new safety measures or controls you bring in.
- It may be a good practice to let employees who can work from home, do so.
It is important to also keep stay on top of the latest public health guidance. All health and safety measures implemented in the workplace must be reviewed regularly.
Encourage your staff to get vaccinated
While it is yet not clear how effective vaccines may be against the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, they have been successful in reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalization against the highly infectious Delta variant.
You should have a vaccination policy in place and encourage your staff to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so already. Unless you are in a high-risk sector and your province mandates it, it is not advised that you make vaccinations mandatory.
You can encourage your staff to get vaccinated by sharing information on the benefits of vaccines from credible sources. A vaccination policy that clearly lays down the provisions around paid time off for getting vaccinated, medical exemptions, storing vaccination proof would help in better vaccine management in the workplace.
Offer mental health support to employees
The pandemic has brought mental health into sharp focus. Long-term stress and anxiety, such as that caused by the pandemic, is detrimental to physical well-being and productivity.
It is important that you create awareness about mental health issues in your workplace. Encourage your staff to make use of your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If you don’t offer an EAP, this may be the time to get one.
An Employee Assistance Program provides confidential professional counselling services to employees experiencing personal hardships, such as mental health issues, domestic violence, substance abuse.
You could also connect your staff to available mental health resources in your province (Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta). Developing a mental health policy that sets down guidelines on the procedure for disclosing mental health issues and seeking accommodation is another effective way to encourage your staff to reach out and get support if they are struggling with mental health issues.