Skip to main content
main content, press tab to continue

Are we on the verge of another COVID-19 surge?

By Patricia Toro, MD | May 25, 2022

Employee notification systems, access to free masks and improved testing enable employers to be better positioned for rising COVID-19 variants and cases.
Health and Benefits|Benessere integrato
Risque de pandémie

Unlock More

About the series

Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz and colleagues provide regular updates on the latest COVID-19 developments with a focus on the implications for employers and guidance on how they can tackle pandemic-related challenges to keep their workplaces safe. Explore the series.

U.S. cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have risen over the past 30 days, raising the possibility that we may be at the start of another surge. The graph below shows reported cases, which are likely an undercount of the true number. The Institute for Health Metric Evaluation (IHME), for example, estimates that actual cases are 10 times higher than reported cases, in part because of widespread use of at-home tests, which are not tracked.

Seven-day moving average of new cases is 105,198; hospitalization admission is 3,302.
Daily trends in number of cases and new patients admitted to hospital with confirmed COVID-19 in the U.S.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

We now have the tools to respond

The CDC reported recently that up to one-third of the U.S. population lives in areas with transmission and hospitalizations high enough to warrant a return to indoor masking. Here are two more ways to prepare for a possible coronavirus surge:

  • You can order eight more COVID-19 antigen tests through the U.S. postal service free of charge.
  • The CDC offers a testing tool that gives situation-specific recommendations on if and when you should be tested and what kind of test should be performed based on symptoms and other factors.

Masking, testing and continuing to encourage vaccinations and boosters for those eligible are important tools to keep ourselves and our communities healthy.

Business response to this phase of the pandemic

As cases continue to climb, businesses may be asking how to respond to the current situation. This table provides suggestions as to what companies can do. More information is available in this Harvard Business Review article, which Jeff Levin-Scherz, John Bremen and I published last week.

How organizations can respond to COVID-19 community risk levels
*Current risk level, May 2022
Level of community risk Company response
Foundational efforts regardless of community risk Prioritize air filtration and ventilation, encourage vaccination and boosters, maintain inventory of personal protective equipment, make rapid tests easily available, ensure sick individuals stay home, communicate through an exposure notification system
Low community risk Offer workplace accommodations, make masks optional for those at higher risk
Medium community risk* Recommend masks for all, encourage social distancing and testing, restrict business travel
High community risk Allow remote work where possible, encourage testing and as much distancing as possible for those at the workplace

Variant update

The virus continues to evolve and new variants are taking over. The Omicron BA.2 virus now represents 51% of the cases in the U.S., and Omicron BA2.12.1 is 48% and seems on track to replace BA.2.

In South Africa, Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 have become dominant, and the CDC and the European Centre for Disease Prevention upgraded both to variants of concern (VOCs). Very preliminary evidence suggests that these variants may have mutations that make them more transmissible, but they do not seem to make people sicker.

There have been a handful of cases of BA.4 and BA.5 in the U.S. (AZ, MO, CA), and these variants may become a factor in U.S. cases in the coming weeks/months. To put it in perspective, Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 currently represent less than 1% of cases in the U.S. A leading South African researcher, Tulio de Oliveira, has tweeted that in South Africa, breakthrough reinfections with Omicron BA.4 or BA.5 after Omicron BA1 are happening “easily.” It is unknown if the U.S. will follow the same pattern if these VOCs become dominant in North America.

New at-home test for multiple respiratory diseases

The FDA approved the first direct-to-consumer at-home nasal swab that tests for COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), another common respiratory virus. The test will be available for ages two and older without a prescription.

FDA approves Pfizer booster in kids

On May 17, the FDA granted Emergency Use Authorization of a single Pfizer vaccine booster dose for children ages five to 11 years old. This can be given five months after receiving the two-dose primary series. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met May 19th and announced that they also approve this recommendation.

Fewer than a third of children ages five to 11 have had their initial vaccination series, so there remains a large opportunity to educate parents about the value of pediatric vaccination. We expect the FDA’s decision on COVID-19 vaccination for children six months to five years in the next month.

Implications for employers

  • The pandemic is evolving and our response can change to meet the local circumstances. Employers can create a system that sets “triggers” for updating their protocols and can use masking or other protective actions to respond at different levels of community transmission.
  • Continue to communicate with employees about what the overall COVID-19 response is so that employees feel their working environment is safe and will be more ready to make a change – if one is needed.
  • Continue to encourage vaccinations and boosters, as appropriate. Pediatric boosters may help to decrease overall household transmission.
  • Encourage employees to work remotely and get tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Companies and individuals can use the CDC testing tool to identify the best test to use and quarantine/isolation recommendations, if needed.

MPH WTW Senior Director, Health Management Practice, Health and Benefits

Patricia is a physician and infectious disease specialist who consults with employers to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of health care delivery. She has guest lectured at Harvard Medical School and currently develops pandemic responses and programs to address chronic conditions.

email Email

Related content tags, list of links Article Health and Benefits Wellbeing Pandemic Risk and Response
Contact us