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Employers should remain cautious on reopening plans, says UChicago doc

Though it appears Chicago has passed the omicron peak, businesses should be wary of bringing employees back to the office too soon amid crowded hospitals.

January 20, 2022

Now that it appears the omicron surge is trending downward in Chicago and throughout Illinois, business owners may be eager to bring employees back to the office. But Dr. Emily Landon, the executive medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medicine, says it could still be too soon, based on what she’s seeing in the intensive care unit every day.

Encouraging news emerged yesterday from press conferences in which both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city and state have passed the peak of the omicron surge. Data from the city and the Illinois Department of Public Health shows COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have decreased since their peak earlier this month.

The omicron surge, which began bubbling up in the U.S. in December, upended many plans businesses had for bringing employees back to the office this month. Though recent news on the omicron surge possibly subsiding in Chicago is encouraging, employers should remain cautious if they want to prevent outbreaks at the workplace, Landon said.

Even businesses that have required all employees be vaccinated need to still be wary of the omicron variant. Those with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems are more susceptible to being infected with COVID-19, Landon said. Because employers typically don’t track common health issues, like diabetes, remaining vigilant until cases significantly drop is best, she says.

“(Employers) see their employees as being healthy individuals, but a lot of people who appear healthy have comorbidities,” Landon said. “If you bring people back too soon, you could jeopardize your long-term productivity by having outbreaks happen in your workplace.”

Landon couldn't provide specific case numbers that would signal when it's safe to go back. However, she expects conditions to continue to improve over the next two to six weeks. If and when employers do bring workers back to the office, they should follow the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines if employees contract COVID-19.

“If you’re going to bring people back to the office that have been able to do their work at home, then you want to be able to avoid having additional unproductivity losses by bringing them back into the office,” Landon said.

Businesses should also remain cautious for the time being to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and help alleviate overcrowding in hospitals. While the omicron variant is less severe than other COVID-19 variants, Landon said UChicago’s medical centers have treated more COVID patients in the past six weeks than it has at any other surge point.

“While it absolutely is going to be an ‘omi-cold’ for the vast majority of vaccinated people, it’s not going to be an 'omi-cold' for everyone,” Landon said. “The more people that have COVID, the more COVID is going to spread and the more people will be in the hospital with COVID.”

About 88% of Chicago’s ICU beds were occupied on Jan. 19 and nearly 90% of ICU beds throughout Illinois were occupied, according to data from the city and IDPH.

COVID-19 cases in Illinois have come down from their recent peak of more than 44,000 daily cases on Jan. 6, according to IDPH. About 23,246 cases were recorded on Jan. 20, but that number is way above points last summer when cases were as low as 222 a day in June.

"It is very easy to reopen your business or school, but it is very hard to keep it open," said Dr. Soumi Eachempati co-founder and CEO of Cleared4, a Dallas-based health verification platform with business and school clients in Illinois. "Invariably what happens is somebody tests positive, somebody gets concerned and then you have to do a lot of things as an organization to quell the fears of your employees, your management and do the right thing for your community."

Eachempati said his clients are now rethinking how strongly they push vaccination and boosters because of omicron's more mild profile and seeming ability to drive breakthrough cases, even among the vaccinated. He strongly advises that vaccination and boosters are clearly still beneficial.

"We need to kill the concept that being vaccinated is not useful," he said.

More Chicagoland employers are requiring vaccinations and booster shots. Multiple local universities, including Loyola University and Northwestern University, have announced they’re requiring employees to get boosters. Health-care startup incubator Matter also recently announced all members and visitors will be required to present proof of vaccination, including a booster shot, effective Feb. 14.

Jon Asplund contributed to this report.

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