As Covid-19 cases continue to fall and state and local governments lift remaining pandemic restrictions, many offices are asking employees to return to in-person work.
We know that 60% of workers with jobs that can be done from home say they’d like to work from home most or all of the time when the pandemic is over, if given the choice, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. That’s up from 54% in 2020.
But what if you want to go back or are required to go back into the office? How should people consider the safety of going back to the office and other in-person work environments? Should they continue to mask, even if it’s not required? Is it safe to sit in conference rooms? What about the risk of taking buses and trains? And are there work circumstances that people should try to avoid?
To guide us through return-to-work questions, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: What are factors people should consider if they need to return to in-person work?
Dr. Leana Wen: I’d encourage people to think about three factors. First, what is their medical circumstance and the circumstances of others in their household? If they are vaccinated, boosted and generally healthy — as is everyone else who lives with them — then their risk of severe illness due to Covid-19 is very low.
Second, what’s the level of Covid-19 in their community? The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new metrics, along with an easy-to-understand color-coded chart with data that are entered in real time. As we discussed in last week’s Q&A, you can think of this new CDC tracker the same way as you would the weather forecast. If the level of Covid-19 is high, consider using additional protective measures and make sure to wear a mask. If the level is low, the risk of contracting the coronavirus is lower and you may decide to use fewer layers of protection.
Third, what are the conditions in your work environment — what safety precautions are already being taken? Some offices require proof of vaccination. Because those unvaccinated are three to five times more likely to be infected with Covid-19 compared with those who are vaccinated and boosted, I would feel better protected in an environment where you know that colleagues around you are vaccinated.
Other conditions include whether there is regular testing. Testing that’s done at least once a week can help catch early, asymptomatic Covid-19 cases and serve as an additional layer of protection. Distancing and ventilation add protection, too. There is greater risk if you are in close proximity to a lot of colleagues in a small space, versus if you are in a large room with good ventilation.
CNN: Should people mask at work, even if they aren’t required to?
Wen: Thinking through the three factors above will help in making this decision. If you or someone in your household is immunocompromised, you may decide to continue masking at work, especially if your area has high Covid-19 levels and you are in a work environment where you are in close proximity to others. On the other hand, if you are generally healthy and vaccinated and boosted, and you live in an area with low or medium Covid-19 levels, it would be reasonable to be unmasked. The work conditions can also shape this decision. For example, if everyone around you is known to be vaccinated and you are well spread out, that could also make it safer to unmask.
You could also use the mask in some work settings and not others. Maybe you sit in an area that’s far away from others — you could unmask there, but then put on your mask when you are on the elevator or go to the restroom. Maybe you don’t quite feel comfortable unmasking yet because your area is medium risk according to the CDC. You could wait to do so once the level falls to low risk.
CNN: What kind of mask would you recommend that people wear? Are cloth masks enough?
Wen: No. If you are going to mask, I’d urge that you wear the highest-quality mask — N95, KN95 or KF94. Make sure that the mask fits you well and that it’s comfortable enough that you could wear it for the length of time that’s needed. A single-layer cloth mask won’t provide nearly as much protection against the very contagious Omicron variant as a high-quality one.
CNN: Say you want to be extra careful. Is it safe to sit in conference rooms with others if they are all unmasked?
Wen: A high-quality N95 or equivalent mask protects you very well. Even if others are unmasked, the risk of your contracting Covid-19 is low if you wear the mask consistently.
This is not to say that everyone needs to be masked when in a conference room. Again, this depends on your medical situation, how much Covid-19 is in your area, and the circumstances of your workplace. It may be very reasonable for many employees to go unmasked in conference rooms if others around them are vaccinated, for example, or if the risk of Covid-19 in their area is low. There will be many different considerations going forward, and everyone needs to make the best decision for themselves, understanding that very few situations will have zero risk.
CNN: What about the commute — is it safe to now take the bus or train?
Wen: Yes, it is, if you wear an N95 or equivalent mask the entire time. For much of the pandemic, we talked about masks as protecting others. Now, we know that a high-quality mask protects the wearer. Make sure to wear the mask during the entire commute, and don’t eat or drink unless absolutely necessary.
CNN: Are there work circumstances that people should try to avoid?
Wen: This still depends on the individual and the circumstances involved. Someone who is healthy, vaccinated and boosted, and in a low-transmission area can probably take part in all work activities with very low risk of severe illness. On the other hand, another person who is medically vulnerable and in an area with higher Covid-19 levels may want to take additional precautions.
Consider not only the work environment itself but also the activities that take place around work. The office may be quite well spaced out and safe, but if colleagues are going out to drinks in a crowded bar, that introduces additional risk. Workers may have to be vaccinated, but not clients or visitors. Take these factors into consideration when deciding what additional precautions to follow.
That doesn’t mean you can’t socialize with your coworkers. You may decide to avoid the crowded bar and suggest an outdoor setting for after-work socialization. Or you could go maskless around your colleagues who you know to be vaccinated but wear your mask when around those of unknown vaccination status. Remember that the mask is always available to you as an option, even if it’s not required. Wearing a high-quality mask still protects you. Of course, get vaccinated and boosted, too!