What Does The Delta Variant Mean?
Delta is a very different beast, and the pandemic is far from over.
Given the new appreciation of Delta and what it threatens, what should businesses do now about getting back to the office?
In short: Don’t.
The salient points — which haven't sunk in for everyone — are these:
Delta is the dominant strain of coronavirus in the US (and across the world), accounting for 80% or more of new infections. In a recent study, 100% of the infected in London had Delta.
Delta has an R0 (R nought) of six to seven, meaning that an infected person — on average — would infect six to seven other people if no factors are present to retard that spread. Vaccination, appropriate masks, and social isolation all retard the transmission of coronavirus (and all other viruses). The original strain had an R0 of 3.
Typical surgical masks and most cloth masks are ineffective in blocking the transmission of Delta. Appropriate masks are N95 and HK95 masks, or cloth masks with filters. They also have to be worn effectively: no gaps, tightly fitted across the bridge of the nose, etc.
The current CDC guidelines stating that masking policies are effective do not reflect the new understanding of Delta's infectiousness and the difficulties of avoiding exposure when masked. I think they don’t want to scare people.
Unmasked infected people coming into contact with unvaccinated people who are not masked, wearing inappropriate masks, or wearing the right masks the wrong way are going to lead to more infections, possibly five or more people per infected person.
Delta is much more virulent, so a much shorter period of exposure can spread the disease than seen in earlier variants.
A small proportion of vaccinated people are likely to be infected by the Delta variant, and while they are less likely to get desperately ill or die, they too can spread the virus at about the same rate as the unvaccinated. New research suggests that two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine are only 49% effective at preventing infection with the delta variant, which is much, much lower than earlier estimates. The chances of a fully vaccinated person catching Delta when in contact with an infected person are one in 26.
In the absence of a dramatic change in the current public health regime -- like a full vaccination of the population, quarantining the unvaccinated, creation of a Delta-specific vaccine, or returning to widescale lockdowns -- nearly all unvaccinated people in the US are likely to become infected within the next few months.
The surge of hospitalizations is already beginning to overwhelm the US health care system. Absent widespread changes (as noted in 8, above) the public health system will be overwhelmed in many parts of the country in the next months, or sooner.
Even vaccination rates of 99% will not get us to herd immunity, due to the virulence of Delta, and the fact that the vaccinated can be infected. See the spread in countries with high vaccination rates, like Iceland.
Depending on location, health systems will soon not be able to effectively treat all of the newly infected.
In such a context, companies should, in good conscience:
Mandate vaccinations for all employees, especially for those coming to the office. ( I feel that employees who refuse vaccination should be terminated, but I am an extremist, and have no employees. The federal government might create some special unemployment program for this group.)
Abandon near-term plans to return office workers to the office, or if, in fact, they have already done so, they should return to a working-from-home model, at least until the Delta outbreak lasts. And that could be a long time.
Provide appropriate PPE to any workers — front-line and other essential workers — and train them to use PPE appropriately.
Individuals should take all precautions consistent with this new phase of the pandemic: the Delta phase.
Decrease your exposure to the potentially infected, which now includes vaccinated individuals. This means avoiding crowds, crowded indoor locations, and especially places where people are not masked appropriately.
Wear appropriate masks and use them appropriately (see point 3, above) whenever in public, and especially indoors.
Work from home if you can. If you are an essential or front-line worker, mask up and make sure everyone you are coming in contact with is masking up, too.
It’s impossible to say what the situation will be like in a few months. Other countries saw soaring numbers with Delta, and now they have retreated some. But it is clear we are in for a few desperate months, at the very least. Buckle up.