The Omicron coronavirus variant will cause a “winter wave” that will complicate the return of workers to offices in the United States, according to Andy Slavitt, a former senior pandemic adviser to President Joe Biden.
“The beginning of 2022 will be rough,” Slavitt told CNN in a phone interview.
Scientists are still studying the characteristics of Omicron, but early research suggests symptoms may be less severe, though the new variant may spread more rapidly.
“The problem with Omicron is hotspots will be easier to generate,” Slavitt said. “The things that might have been two or three people getting Covid in the office will be 15 or 30 people getting Covid.”
That’s why Slavitt, who in June stepped down from Biden’s Covid-19 response team, said CEOs should rethink their office reopening plans.
“If I’m an employer with the option to have people work virtually, I am going to continue to take that,” he said, adding that not every company “has that luxury.”
Two doses not sufficient
Due to rising Covid risk scores, Fidelity announced Friday it is halting return-to-office pilots in New England, impacting several hundred employees. Ford Motor recently delayed its return-to-office date to March amid concerns about the state of the pandemic.
Wall Street bank Jefferies asked staff last week to work from home and stopped virtually all travel and social events after dozens of employees tested positive for Covid-19.
In light of the Omicron variant, Slavitt said there’s “no question” CEOs should require employees to get boosters.
“Omicron has turned this undoubtedly into a three-dose vaccine, if it wasn’t heading that way already,” he said. “Two doses just aren’t going to be sufficient any longer.”
Pfizer said last week that preliminary studies show two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may not provide sufficient protection against Omicron, but three doses might do more to neutralize it. Other studies show even boosted people get infected.
“Boost everybody. If everybody is boosted, that’s your best shot at having everyone back,” Slavitt said, referring to how business leaders should approach back-to-the-office plans.
Jefferies said it will require anyone who wants to enter any office or attend an event to have their booster administered by January 31, unless they are not yet eligible to do so.
‘Irresponsible and not going to end well’
Some sports leagues have been hit with Covid-19 cases in recent days.
England’s Premiere League said Monday it will institute Covid-19 emergency measures amid a significant increase of cases within the league. The NBA halted the Chicago Bulls’ season on Monday after 10 players and additional staff members entered the league’s Covid-19 protocols. The NHL announced the next three games for the Calgary Flames will be postponed because six players and one staff member are in the league’s Covid-19 protocol.
Slavitt urged companies to invest in good ventilation as well as regular at-home instant tests for key events when employees are back together.
“If there is a major outbreak, you have to close again. The problem is, it’s hard to police every weak link if this thing is really spreading,” Slavitt said. “If we just say, ‘I want my people together but am not willing to do anything to make it safe,’ that’s irresponsible and not going to end well.”
Asked to rank from 1 to 10 how concerned he is about Omicron, Slavitt said he’s only a 2 or 3 worried about people who are boosted and in communities where lots of people have boosters.
But that rises to a 6 or 7 in communities where fewer people have been vaccinated.
“We’re going to be living in most communities with Delta plus Omicron, instead of one superseding the other,” Slavitt said. “In parts of the country that are unvaccinated, I am very worried.”
JPMorgan isn’t right to say 2022 is the end of the pandemic, Slavitt says
The good news is Slavitt, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, isn’t overly concerned about how disruptive Omicron will be to the economic recovery. That’s despite concerns over how the variant could put additional pressure on global supply chains.
“I think it will be manageable,” Slavitt said. “Many of us mentally live in a 2020 mindset. But now we have seven or eight interventions: rapid tests we can give people, boosters, ventilation, therapies.”
Of course, different parts of the country will respond differently to Omicron.
“There is a bit of a split personality in how people react,” Slavitt said. “Ron DeSantis will probably go running mask-less into ICU wards without fear. But people in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, California and Pacific Northwest are going to display more caution.”
Last week, JPMorgan issued an optimistic prediction on Covid, saying that next year will be a year of a “full global recovery, an end of the global pandemic and a return to normal conditions we had prior to the Covid.19 outbreak.”
Asked if JPMorgan is right to say 2022 will be the year the pandemic ends, Slavitt said no.
“They’re not right. Could 2022 be the year where the state of emergency ends? Perhaps,” he said. “But it’s not the year when SARS-CoV-2 stop circulating or hundreds of thousands of people in this country stop dying.”