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The Next (and Hopefully Final) Phase of the Pandemic

In March, with Omicron cases dropping across the U.S., the Biden administration issued an updated COVID-19 preparedness plan. That plan includes four major goals: protect against and treat COVID-19, prepare for new variants, prevent economic and education shutdowns and lead the effort to vaccinate the world.

Looking beyond the individual details of the nearly 100 page document, the plan signals a shift in the federal government’s approach to the pandemic. Going forward, it appears the priority will be vaccination and treatment to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19, with less of a focus on trying to limit exposure and transmission at the community level. The administration has called vaccines the best tool available in the fight against COVID-19, noting that because tools like vaccines and testing capacity exist, we can “begin to get back to our more normal routines safely and the use of public health mitigation measures like masking can be less frequent.”

New CDC Guidance and COVID-19 Community Levels

The administration’s updated plan came shortly after the CDC issued new masking and social distancing guidance that led many state and local governments to ease indoor masking requirements in schools and businesses. The CDC introduced a new metric called COVID-19 community levels to help state and local governments determine overall risk for COVID-19. Community levels are calculated based on new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days, COVID-19 hospital admissions in the last seven days and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Under this new metric, risk levels are broken into three categories – low, medium and high. In this system, only a high level of community spread would lead to a recommendation for wearing masks indoors for most people. Click here to see the current COVID-19 community level for your state or county.

OSHA to Update COVID-19 Employer Guidance

The Biden administration’s new preparedness plan also directs OSHA to update COVID-19 workplace guidance. These will be the first updates we’ve seen since the Supreme Court blocked OSHA’s vaccination and testing ETS. Specifically, the plan directs OSHA to include guidance on how employers can continue supporting workers to stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccines, support workers who are immunocompromised and who choose to wear masks on the job and enhance ventilation in the workplace.

While OSHA hasn’t yet published this updated guidance, the White House directive is in line with the CDC’s shift away from strict social distancing and masking to an approach that places vaccination front and center. It’s likely that updated OSHA guidance will mirror the new CDC guidance that recommends additional precautions such as masking, screening and testing based on the level of community spread. In the meantime, employers can refer to the Fund’s article, Ventilation Best Practices to Help Stop COVID-19, for more information.

COVID-19 Here to Stay, Hopefully with Less Impact

When taken together, the new White House plan and CDC guidance show a clear shift away from the large-scale, collective, public health strategy we’ve been following over the last two years to a strategy based more on treatment and individual risk. This shift is due in part to the fact that COVID-19 vaccines are widely available and extremely effective at preventing severe disease and death, even against contagious variants like Omicron. It’s also an acknowledgement of the enormous costs that COVID-19 has had on the economy, on the educational needs of children and on our quality of life in general.

As much as we’d all like it to, it seems clear COVID-19 won’t be going away completely, at least not in the near future. A new variant known as BA.2 has already been identified in the U.S. and internationally, and it likely won’t be the last COVID-19 variant. Even with this development, the CDC and the federal government seem ready to move into the next phase of the pandemic – one where COVID-19 is an endemic disease similar to the seasonal flu. After two years of this virus dominating headlines and our day-to-day lives, that’s a victory worth celebrating.

[Nick Fox]

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