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WELL-BEING AND COMMUNITY

Ask a Health Expert Podcast, Episode 4: Returning to the Workplace

July 08, 2021

 

Dr. Whitney

Hello and welcome to episode 4 of "Ask a Health Expert." I'm your podcast host, Dr. John Whitney, Vice President here at Anthem. Like myself and most of my coworkers, many of you have been working from home for the past year as the country works to manage COVID-19. With millions of people in the U.S. now fully vaccinated against the virus, more companies are considering plans to return to the workplace and bring back employees.

We know you have many questions and concerns as we enter this next phase of the pandemic. So to help answer your questions, I'm turning to Dr. Gabriel Waterman. Gabe is the Associate Regional Medical Officer and National COVID-19 Medical Director at CareMore Health.

Thanks for being here today, Dr. Waterman.

Dr. Waterman

Thanks so much for having me. Glad to be here.

Dr. Whitney

It's a pleasure. And tell me, just what is CareMore?

Dr. Waterman

Yeah, so CareMore is an integrated care delivery organization that's part of Anthem. And what we do is we provide complex and wraparound care to Medicare and Medicaid patients. We see patients across the continuum of care, including in the hospital, the clinic, the nursing home, and at home as well. And so, not only have we been taking care of COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic; we've actually had to grapple with a lot of the questions that we're going to be answering today about how to return to the workplace safely. We've been operating our clinics continually throughout the pandemic, and we've done so safely. So I'm happy to share my experience, and I think, hopefully, answer many of the questions that you have today about how to stay safe when you come back to work.

Dr. Whitney

That's very helpful and, clearly, you've got the exact kind of experience we're looking for to answer these questions. And so, tell me, what kind of measures are employers taking to help ensure a safe return to the workplace?

Dr. Waterman

So I think employers are doing a few things. But first and foremost, generally speaking they're encouraging their employees to get one of the FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines. We know these vaccines at this point are safe and effective. We have hundreds of millions of people that have received these vaccines, and most employers say that they're going to strongly encourage vaccination. And in some cases, they're even going to offer incentives or rewards to motivate their employees to getting their vaccines. Not only do these COVID-19 vaccines protect you from getting a severe case of COVID, but they also strongly reduce the possibility that, if you are infected with COVID, that you could transmit that disease to someone else. So again, first and foremost, employers are encouraging people to go get vaccinated.

But they're doing other things as well. Some of the things that you're going to see are daily employee screenings for signs or symptoms of illness, employing universal masking requirements in public workspaces, common areas, break rooms, hallways, restrooms. Also adjusting office spacing, moving workstations around to ensure that they're as far apart as possible, and employing physical distancing when we can. Also, employing things like capacity requirements in an office to ensure that they aren't overcrowded, as well as making some fairly simple retrofits to ventilation, employing specialized air filtration filters and other devices that can really improve airflow and reduce the risk of spread in an office. And then also installing barrier protection, so we're seeing a lot of plexiglass barriers. These are all things that we've done at CareMore, which have really helped contribute to a really safe work environment. I think we're certainly not the only ones that have done these things. Millions and millions of businesses throughout the world have employed a lot of these methodologies with great success to ensure that the workplace is free and safe of COVID.

Dr. Whitney

That's great information, and it's great to have the firsthand experience from CareMore, too. Tell me, what about on-site testing facilities and sick leave and time off for people either getting the vaccine or who might have COVID? Is that part of the workplace response as well?

Dr. Waterman

Absolutely, and I think a particular emphasis on the latter thing that you just mentioned, which is having a really good sick-leave policy. What we don't want to do is incentivize people to come to work when they're sick. If you're sick, we want you to stay home. We don't want you to feel that you have to come to work because you have to get something done if you're not feeling well. So having these policies that are very flexible to encourage employees to stay home and even potentially work from home if they're feeling up to working from home, that's a really important piece.

And then, even as you mentioned, some employers have partnered with other organizations, or even in some cases procured their own rapid COVID-19 testing. We think that that can be a really adjunctive, important tool to help keep the workplace safe. So all these things together, we can create a really holistic approach to safety. And absolutely to your point, having testing options and sick-leave policies are extremely important.

Dr. Whitney

Great. And so it seems like it's sort of a two-way street. The employer plays a role, but so does the associate. So what kind of things should the associate be thinking about in terms of whether or not to go to work or how they can play a role in keeping the workplace safe?

Dr. Waterman

Sure, you're right, it's absolutely a two-way street, and employees do really need to assume responsibility for their own safety and well-being. And so employees can do a lot of those same things that we were just talking about, like getting vaccinated. The employers are going to encourage it, but ultimately, it's up to the employee to decide whether to do it. The single most important thing that you can do to ensure your own safety is go ahead and get a COVID-19 vaccine.

But it's not the only thing that you can do. There are other things that you can do, including staying home if you don't feel well – we talked about that just a few minutes ago about how a lot of these new sick-leave policies are designed to incentivize you to do exactly that. And if you're not feeling well, seek care. Contact your primary care provider. Use virtual care options, which are available to Anthem members. And again, always continue to practice distancing and masking in your personal lives as well as in the office.

Dr. Whitney

That's very helpful, and the message is pretty clear there about the importance of getting the vaccine, but also continuing with the other safety measures. So let's say the employer does their part, the employee does their part. What's the risk of catching COVID-19 in that situation?

Dr. Waterman

Very, very low. It's hard to give you an exact percentage, and of course nothing protects you 100%. But all of these safety measures, when used together, really can help protect you from both transmitting COVID-19 as well as contracting it from another person.

In healthcare we often talk about the Swiss cheese model for safety. And what we mean when we talk about Swiss cheese is that each safety measure that we employ, let's say in a hospital or in a clinic, represents a slice of that Swiss cheese. So a slice of Swiss cheese, it's mostly solid, but there are occasional holes in that cheese which represent vulnerabilities in safety. And so if you layer multiple slices on top of one another, you end up with fewer or no holes in the cheese. So if one safety system or layer of the cheese fails, you still have a backup. We think that this is a really valuable way of thinking about safety in general. And it really, again, applies to healthcare, but it also applies to the workplace. And when you think about the key layers of cheese that we use in COVID to keep our offices safe, they're vaccines, masks, and distancing. So even if one of those safety mechanisms is failed – so one of your colleagues is not vaccinated – you can still fall back on the masking and distancing to protect yourself or vice versa. You're eating lunch and you're not able to be masked with your colleagues, but you're vaccinated and you're eating at a distance. And so putting all these things together, we know that these measures can do a really good job of keeping you safe.

Dr. Whitney

Thank you, Dr. Waterman. So the workplace may be safe and the employee may do their part in keeping it safe, but not everybody is going to be required to go back into the workplace. Are there any other factors that people should consider when they're trying to decide whether they should go in, if they have the option of staying home?

Dr. Waterman

Yeah, so I think many employers are adopting a flexible work schedule, a hybrid work schedule, and some people will have a choice or they will have at least some discretion as to how they may return to the office. I think if you are one of those individuals that has these choices and has that discretion available to them, you should start thinking about other externalities. So, what are some examples of that?

Are you taking public transportation? If you are and you're going to be interacting with a lot of other people on a subway, for instance, or on a bus, and you've noticed that people on the subway or the bus aren't always wearing their masks. Many subway cars don't have great ventilation. Those are all things that would increase your risk of developing COVID in the community and something that you should consider. Maybe, in fact, I want to work at home.

You also have to think about what your home work environment is like. Are you going to be productive in your home? Is it comfortable for you to work at home? Do you have all of the materials and the workspace to be, again, a really productive member of your team if you're at home.

I think you also need to think about your family's risk. Is there someone in your household who is immunocompromised? Are the people in your household vaccinated? Have there been people in your household who have not been vaccinated who might be particularly high risk? These are the sorts of things that you probably want to be thinking about when you're making the decision about whether to return to work.

I do want to acknowledge that I think a lot of people who are probably listening have a lot of fear and anxiety and trepidation about coming back to work, and I think that's normal. You've been home for over a year and so making a significant change in your life, coming back to the office after being home for so long, it's normal and expected to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious about that. And so I think acknowledging that that's a normal feeling is really important. And if you are having those feelings, perhaps you might want to think about employing a hybrid work schedule and easing your way back into a routine of coming back to the office. And the other thing that I want to point out is that all Anthem members have access to the PsychHub, which is a website that brings together free resources to support your emotional and mental well-being. That website is psychhub.com, and I think that's a really great, fantastic resource that I encourage you to visit if you are having these feelings of anxiety or fear. Go check it out. I think you might find it helpful.

Dr. Whitney

So much to think about. And I know you told us this already and you've emphasized the importance of vaccines. I don't think anybody listening has any uncertainty about that.

Dr. Waterman

Are you sure I did the job? Did I do it justice?

Dr. Whitney

I think you did. But one more time though: Where would you go to find out where to get a vaccine?

Dr. Waterman

So the easiest place to find out where you can get vaccinated is www.vaccines.gov. That's www.vaccines.gov, and you're just going to click on a blue icon that says "Find COVID vaccines." And then all you have to do is type in your ZIP code and toggle the checkboxes to select which particular vaccine you want, whether it's Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson and Johnson. And the website is going to spit out a whole long list of providers in your local area that have vaccines available for you.

Dr. Whitney

Thank you, Dr. Waterman. It's also worth mentioning that Empire covers the COVID-19 vaccine at 100%. This applies to all members, regardless of the type of health plan they have or which doctor or healthcare professional they choose to visit for their vaccination.

Dr. Waterman, I can't thank you enough for being here today and answering these important questions and providing your personal experiences in the fight against COVID-19. And listeners, to learn more about COVID-19 and your benefits, visit empireblue.com/coronavirus/.

Stay informed by checking these resources for up-to-date information about COVID-19, especially if you’re thinking about traveling.