The safest way to return to the office, according to a Georgetown immunologist who studied under Fauci

November 18, 2021, 3:20 PM UTC

Many U.S. workers are looking to return to the office in-person after the new year. In New York, employers expect nearly half of workers to be back in the office by the end of January 2022. But with COVID rates again on the rise in Northern Europe, how do employers make it safe?

Companies are going to have to utilize a combination of safety precautions, Dr. Mark Dybul, who trained under Dr. Anthony Fauci and currently serves as CEO of Enochian BioSciences and is a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Medicine, told attendees at Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference earlier this week. But it starts with vaccine mandates.

The Biden administration is set to require COVID-19 vaccines from federal employees, contractors, health care workers, and even employees at private companies with 100 or more workers. Federal employees need to be vaccinated by Nov. 22. Private companies have until Jan. 4, 2022, to implement vaccine mandates or testing protocols for unvaccinated workers, if the emergency temporary standard issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) survives the pending legal challenges against it.

But vaccine mandates alone will likely not be enough in the coming months.

“A week ago, I would have said a vaccine mandate is enough for now—and maybe for another month it is,” Dybul said. “I would do regular testing, antigen testing, as well.”

Employers don’t have to mandate daily testing, but it should be performed on a cyclical basis within the office so that it includes everyone. Dybul says by doing this, employers can identify those who are infected and get them out of the office to minimize spread. It also helps get workers treated faster, so employers don’t lose members of their workforce to hospitalization for the long term. 

For those about to return to offices, Dybul recommended companies take a close look at the airflow within the workspace.

“If you’re sitting in an office along the airflow, almost everyone will get infected in that row. In a row right next to them, you’ll have almost no infections,” Dybul said. “So if you can keep people out of the direct airflow by repositioning desks and things like that, you could actually probably reduce transmission by a lot.”

For those operating in retail or in customer-facing roles, Dybul said it’s important to enforce masking, as well as a vaccine mandate and regular testing. “If we do all those things, we’ll probably be okay,” he said.

The U.S is probably going to go through “a pretty bad cycle” again, but by using testing and getting the treatment available, Dybul says employers can still function fairly well.

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