CDC Guidance Change Worth Noting

All right compliance officers, gird your loins. The Centers for Disease Control published new guidance this week relaxing a crucial public health restriction on people vaccinated against covid, opening what could be a Pandora’s Box of policy management challenges.

The guidance came Wednesday. It specifies that “fully vaccinated persons” — people who have received all necessary doses, with at least two weeks since their final dose — no longer need to quarantine when they’ve had exposure to a Covid-19 case but have no symptoms. 

The CDC’s logic here is that even if a vaccinated person does pick up coronavirus from a covid exposure, the vast majority of vaccinated people will be asymptomatic. Asymptomatic people are much less likely to transmit covid to others, and “avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission.”

Why is this guidance shift significant for corporate compliance programs? Because for the first time, the CDC is saying vaccinated people can enjoy special privileges that the rest of us don’t

Now consider the implications of that distinction from an employment and business operations perspective. 

Those implications might seem like an academic point today, while most of us aren’t vaccinated — but that’s only the case right now. By mid-summer, when significant portions of the public will be vaccinated, who gets to do what in the workplace and the larger economic sphere could be a much more contentious issue. 

For example, if vaccinated people don’t need to quarantine after an exposure, could employers require vaccinated people to come to work? After all, those employees would no longer be able to say, “Sorry, I was exposed to someone with covid over the weekend; I can’t come into the office and risk infecting others.”

I put that hypothetical to a few employment lawyers this week. The short answer from them was that yes, a business could impose a policy like that. 

Now couple this CDC guidance with the legal freedom U.S. businesses already have to require workers to be vaccinated as part of their terms of employment. You can see how a company might use these two policy positions in tandem to put its return to work on the fast track: “All employees must be vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible, and all vaccinated employees must then return to the workplace.”

Treading Carefully on Vaccination Policy

I’m not advocating that companies should take such a heavy-handed approach to resuming normal workplace operations. I’m only pointing out that we can already see how employers might be able to take such a heavy-handed approach; and we need to consider how that stance might affect corporate culture, employee complaints about favoritism or retaliation, privacy risk, and so forth. 

For example, would vaccinated employees feel any resentment if company policy is for them to remain in the office after a covid exposure, while unvaccinated employees go home to quarantine? Would some employees complain that they’re carrying a disproportionate workload because they can keep working in the office? Should a company require vaccinated people to disclose a potential covid exposure, even if that exposure (according to the new CDC guidance) has no practical consequence on their work lives? 

Vaccination policy and pandemic operation policies are going to be a fast-moving thing in 2021. Compliance officers should consider a few points. 

First, watch for regulatory and guidance changes like this. Plenty of businesses cite “CDC guidelines” the standard for how they define a safe work environment right now. The CDC just showed us how even an apparently subtle change in those guidelines can open a can of compliance worms if you’re not paying attention.

Second, review the training materials you provide to managers, since they’ll be the ones most likely to enforce covid-related policies and to hear any complaints employees might have. Inconsistent application of policy and mishandling of complaints could lead to significant headaches later. 

Third, think about documentation issues, both in your workplace and in the world. How would you confirm that an employee has been fully vaccinated? How would you store that data electronically (if you store it at all) and keep that information secure? 

Soon enough, we’ll also need to revisit questions about people traveling around the world, and the documentation they provide. If you’re a hotel or hospitality business, how could you confirm that a guest is fully vaccinated and doesn’t need to quarantine in a room? What would your legal liability be if you get that documentation wrong, or just don’t bother to inquire about it at all? 

Developing covid vaccines so quickly was an amazing feat of human ingenuity. Now, despite the rocky start, we’re also racing toward the fastest vaccination program in history. That’s great news, but remember — it also means that all those vexing policy questions out there are racing toward us at breakneck speed, too.

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