When business travel ground to a halt in the spring of 2020, most organizations switched to videoconferencing to conduct business and build internal and external relationships. The elimination of business travel affected organizations and employees differently, but nearly all the restrictions led directly to a decrease in expenses at a time when revenues were highly uncertain.
Two years later, aspects of the pandemic have changed dramatically. On the one hand, the risk of hospitalization and death are dramatically lower, due to immunity from highly effective vaccines and previous infections. We are also on the cusp of widespread availability of effective oral drugs that decrease the risk of severe cases of Covid-19. Vaccinations for children, boosters for adults and continued infections will hopefully continue to decrease the rate of community transmission.
On the other hand, we have seen a waning of immunity from past vaccinations or infections, and new variants create new risks – so, decisions around resuming business travel may be difficult for some organizations. To help employers strategically determine the right guidelines, here are some key considerations to address as Covid-19 continues to pose a threat to travelers.
- Develop clear policies on when business travel is warranted. The pandemic has shown that many business activities can be accomplished without travel. Although many employees are eager to get back on the road, leadership needs to clearly define instances when it makes sense – when the benefits exceed the risk of a potential employee’s COVID-19 exposure while away from home.
- Determine which locations are eligible for travel. Employers can assess travel risk by being in-the-know about the rate of community transmission at various destinations. With a wide range of community transmission rates in the US and globally, business travel to or from communities with higher rates of transmission represents the highest risk. Companies can assess risk using up-to-date data on US countiesand travel restrictions by countryfrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Determine which employees are eligible for business travel. Vaccinated/ boosted people are much less likely to be infected than the unvaccinated. Vaccinated individuals are thirteen times less likely to be infected with Covid-19, sixteen times less likely to be hospitalized, and sixty-eight times less likely to die.
Although recommendations for quarantining and masking seem to be a moving target, many companies may decide the best way to reduce the risk of medical costs or business disruption is to restrict business travel to those individuals who are comfortable with the added risks of travel and up to date on Covid-19 vaccinations. Employees with compromised immune systems remain at high risk from Covid-19, even if they are vaccinated and boosted. Employers CANNOT ask employees if they are immunocompromised, so they should allow employees to participate virtually, instead of traveling, if someone feels their health may be threatened.
Evidence seems to show immunity from vaccinations wanes six months after the first injection, and immunity from COVID infections subsides more quickly. Employers can strongly recommend employees get boosted prior to travel. Booster shots can substantially increase antibody levels in just seven days.
- Instruct employees to start business travel only if they feel well. The days are over for employees to pack tissues and “power through” an upper respiratory tract infection. Employees should initiate a business trip only if they are feeling well. Neither a negative self-administered antigen test the day of travel, nor a negative laboratory PCR test a day or more earlier provides complete assurance that a symptomatic employee is not infected. Companies can encourage employees to stay home if they feel ill by facilitating last-minute remote or hybrid meetings, when necessary. Effective contingency plans and travel policies reassure employees they can avoid travel when ill without repercussions.
- Develop contingency and treatment plans if an employee is infected while traveling.Employers must be prepared to address Covid-19 exposure or illness during business travel, despite vaccinations and appropriate caution. New, more contagious variants have shown protocols can quickly change. Businesses should be prepared to help employees who are sick or have an exposure away from home. This includes access to virtual care through telemedicine and navigation assistance to arrange for isolation stays or medical evacuation, if necessary.
An employee who gets sick away from home should be tested for COVID-19, follow any updated mask guidance, and avoid taking public transportation until there’s confirmation they are Covid-19 negative. Unvaccinated employees who travel could be subject to quarantine, if exposed. Firms should also have backup plans for employees unable to travel or attend a meeting – perhaps with colleagues that can handle those responsibilities.
- Encourage employees to take steps to reduce risks while traveling. Well-fitting, high filtration masks are unquestionably effective. Masks and distancing, when possible, significantly reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. Once employees are at their destination, masking continues to be important, as business travel often mixes people from different communities with different levels of risk. While vaccination provides substantial protection, the CDC currently recommends indoor masks even for the vaccinated, if community transmission is substantial. N95 or KN95 respirators are the most effective at preventing transmission. (IMPORTANT: Masks are not effective unless they fully cover the nose and mouth.)
Employees can also turn on the “exposure notification” on their iPhone or Android mobile devices. This allows users to self-report positive tests, triggering a warning to others who they might have exposed.
- Routine testing pre- and post-travel increases early detection. Rapid antigen tests, which can be self-administered and provide fast results, have been used widely to decrease transmission. They are less sensitive than laboratory PCR tests but still excellent at determining who is contagious at that moment. Antigen tests can be used the day of travel for employees feeling well, but companies should be prepared with the necessary protocols if the employee tests positive. An employee who feels ill should delay travel, even with a negative antigen test.
Similarly, some employees might wish to self-test 5-7 days after their travel to minimize the risk of household transmission. If a traveler is concerned about exposure while traveling, they should quarantine at home, to the extent possible. If a traveler has respiratory symptoms, they should behave as if they are infected, unless they have a negative PCR test.
Covid-19 is likely to continue to cause periodic outbreaks and surges, even as we reach higher levels of vaccination. Prudent companies can follow the above tips to assess when, where, and how to return to necessary and valuable business travel, while mitigating risk and protecting employees, families and the community.
Source: Chief Executive