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As Americans continue to get vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it can feel like the world is changing overnight. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that, pending local governance, fully vaccinated people can go without masks and social distancing outdoors and indoors (though immunocompromised patients should check with their doctors before doing so) in most settings, and several large retailers no longer require masks for shoppers.
Fully vaccinated means it’s been at least two weeks since the second dose in a two-dose series, like Pfizer or Moderna, or two weeks since a single-dose vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson.
If your job has allowed you to work at home during the pandemic, another big shift may be looming: your return to the workplace.
It’s normal to feel anxious about going back to work, especially if you’re immunocompromised. You may feel leery, for instance, about shedding your mask (even if your coworkers do so) — something many of the members of the chronic illness community have expressed concern about.
“I can definitely understand the hesitancy from immunocompromised patients, and I actually echo those thoughts,” says rheumatologist Jiha Lee, MD, a Clinical Assistant Professor at Michigan Medicine. “We have data from solid organ transplant patients and inflammatory bowel disease patients who are on immunosuppressant medications, which shows they don’t mount the same degree of vaccine response compared to an immunocompetent person.”
Preliminary research in people with inflammatory conditions, including inflammatory arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, suggests that taking immunosuppressant medication does reduce the body’s antibody response to the vaccine, but this varies widely by medication type. Read more about the research findings here.
Because experts don’t have sufficient data yet to understand how effective the vaccine is in various types of immunocompromised patients, many recommend you continue to follow standard COVID-19 mitigation efforts if you are immunocompromised. This means you may want to continue wearing a mask indoors and practicing social distancing, particularly if you are in larger groups or around people whose vaccination status you don’t know.
With that in mind, here are three steps to take if you’re fully vaccinated and immunocompromised, and your company is returning to in-person work.
Ask What Options Are Available for Work from Home
If it’s possible for your field of work, your company may decide to adopt a hybrid model, in which employees go to the office some days of the week but work from home other days. Ask your boss what options are available for working from home — and remember that the less you commute and work in a space with others, the lower your risk for COVID-19 infection.
“Spending four days in a situation where there’s a risk of transmission is, in theory, twice as risky as spending two days in the same situation — assuming everything else is equal,” says David Aronoff, MD, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Because of that, moving toward a hybrid work model is relatively safer than going full steam ahead in person.”
That said, each situation is unique. It’s possible that your workplace has a very low risk of transmission (say, if desks are spaced six feet apart and every employee is vaccinated).
“If you have a desk job at an office where there’s not a lot of foot traffic in your area and everyone you work with is fully vaccinated, that may be a relatively safe environment,” says Dr. Aronoff. “It’s very different from an open space that’s crowded with customers or clients and where not everyone in the workspace is vaccinated.”
Check in with your doctor to discuss your COVID-19 risk if you return to the workplace. Your physician will consider your underlying health conditions, the medications you’re taking, and your work environment.
If your boss asks for how long you want to work from home, you can say that experts believe more data on the vaccine’s efficacy in immunocompromised people is expected to be available within the next six months — which may help determine your level of risk and guide your work decisions moving forward.
Even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first, don’t be afraid to start this conversation with your supervisor. It’s likely that you aren’t the only person asking for flexible work options. In fact, 81 percent of people who have worked at home during the pandemic either don’t want to go back to the office at all (27 percent) or prefer a hybrid schedule (61 percent), per a March 2021 Harvard Business School survey. Some companies even plan to train managers to avoid preferential treatment being given to remote workers, according to the Washington Post.
But of course, what’s possible will be determined by your job and manager, and not everyone will have the same opportunity to work from home.
Continue to Follow Standard Mitigation Efforts
If you do need to return to the office, you may not want to shed your mask or join large groups of coworkers for lunch outings quite yet.
“I would personally recommend immunocompromised patients continue to follow precautions until we have a few more months under our belt,” says rheumatologist Magdalena Cadet, MD, Associate Attending Physician at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
These include standard mitigation efforts such as wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and avoiding crowds when possible — even if you’re fully vaccinated.
You may imagine yourself being the only person in the office wearing a mask, but you likely won’t be alone. Nearly one-fifth of Americans see themselves continuing to wear a mask in public for some time into the future, even as restrictions are lifted, according to a March 2021 Consumer Reports survey of 2,144 American adults.
What’s more, the Harvard Business School survey found that more than half of professionals surveyed still expect employees to sit at least six feet apart from each other and for everyone to wear masks at the office. This survey, however, was conducted before the CDC issued its guidance allowing fully vaccinated people to ditch their masks indoors, so people’s thinking and behavior will likely continue to shift.
Identify the Areas of Greatest Risk
Avoid common areas where you might have close contact (be within six feet) of others at the workplace. This may include meeting rooms, break rooms, the cafeteria, locker rooms, check-in areas, waiting areas, and entries and exits, per the CDC.
“Nothing has changed about how the virus spreads from one person to another person,” says Dr. Aronoff. “The virus can be more easily transmitted when somebody who is contagious is close physically to someone who is susceptible.”
Try to have small-group activities like lunches, breaks, and meetings in outdoor seating areas when possible. Also consider how you get to work: Some companies may still offer employees incentives to use forms of transportation that minimize close contact like biking, walking, or driving by car, per the CDC.
Ask your boss or HR department what policies are in place to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission. These may include:
- Screening employees daily for symptoms
- Allowing employees to stay at home and get tested for COVID-19 if they don’t feel well (without counting it as a “sick day” or “vacation day”)
- Encouraging employees to get vaccinated, and perhaps even providing mobile vaccination at work
- Updating the workplace’s air filtration systems
- Implementing physical distancing and mask wearing policies
- Allowing employees to work part-time or full-time at home
If your company is small and doesn’t have a comprehensive plan for COVID-19 protocols, you could volunteer to lead the process based on your own research, advises Forbes. A good place to start is by reading recommendations from the CDC, World Health Organization, and American Industrial Hygiene Association (a nonprofit organization meant to protect worker health).
“See what your local government advises, engage with the workplace, and try to keep yourself protected by wearing a mask and exercising caution,” says Dr. Lee.
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COVID-19 Employer Information for Office Buildings. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 7, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/office-buildings.html.
Employers and workers. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/teams/risk-communication/employers-and-workers.
HBS Online Survey Shows Most Professionals Have Excelled While Working from Home. Harvard Business School Online. March 25, 2021. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/future-of-work-from-home?_ga=2.42125223.344157726.1621182761-730256598.1621182761.
Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19. May 13, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html.
Interview with David Aronoff, MD, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee
Interview with Jiha Lee, MD, a Clinical Assistant Professor specializing in rheumatology at Michigan Medicine
Interview with Magdalena Cadet, MD, Associate Attending Physician at NYU Langone Health in New York City
March 2021 Omnibus Results – COVID Items. Consumer Reports. March 2021. https://article.images.consumerreports.org/prod/content/dam/surveys/Consumer_Reports_AES_COVID_March_2021.
McGregor J. The hybrid office is here to stay. The shift could be more disruptive than the move to all-remote work. The Washington Post. March 30, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/30/hybrid-office-remote-work-citigroup-ford-target/.
Reopening: Guidance for General Office Settings. American Industrial Hygiene Association. December 8, 2020. https://aiha-assets.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/AIHA/resources/Reopening-Guidance-for-General-Office-Settings_GuidanceDocument.pdf .
Stahl A. How To Manage Anxiety About Returning To The Office. May 13, 2021. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2021/05/13/how-to-manage-anxiety-about-returning-to-the-office/?sh=7d71d008d556.