Employers should be able to reopen offices by mid-February, says medical expert

California-based infectious disease expert predicts we'll enter the 'endemic stage' of the COVID-19 pandemic by next month

Employers should be able to reopen offices by mid-February, says medical expert

While major companies in the United States have delayed their return-to-office plans, they may be able to welcome employees back sooner than expected.

Employers should be able to safely reopen offices by mid-February, according to Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In a recent interview with CharterWorks, Gandhi predicted we’re moving beyond the pandemic phase of COVID-19, to where its impact resembles a seasonal flu.

Because many people with the Omicron variant are experiencing symptomatic breakthroughs, they’re building up immunity, Gandhi says. “There was a study that showed that you get very broadly neutralizing antibody activity against the other variants and a strengthening of what's called your t-cell response,” Gandhi said. “As a result, it's going to leave immunity, even for those of us who are vaccinated, and certainly leave immunity in those who are unvaccinated. Omicron will take us into the endemic stage because of the wall of immunity that will be built, so we'll be there in a couple of months.”

Referencing an analysis of a million people by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Gandhi said the only people who are having vaccinated breakthroughs are immunocompromised and elderly with multiple medical conditions. “When I think of the workplace, those are the people who, when they go back, need to be protected more because they're more at risk for severe breakthroughs,” she said. “They're the ones who need to be wearing masks if they feel comfortable doing so.” Gandhi also recommended that companies invest in regular, filtered ventilation, which combats the coronavirus and other respiratory pathogens.

Read more: ‘We’re figuring out our return-to-office strategy,’ says Zoom’s chief people officer

Gandhi’s prediction is encouraging news for companies trying to bring their workers back to the office. Before Omicron, major players in Silicon Valley like Apple and Google planned to adopt hybrid working schedules, in which employees would come to the office a few days a week. The data suggests it’s a popular policy – 89% of US employees prefer a role with remote options, according to San Francisco-based PRO Unlimited, an integrated workforce management platform provider.

Employees in the technology industry, such as those working in Silicon Valley, seem to desire the “WFH” lifestyle more than those in any other field. Roughly two-thirds of tech employees (66%) said they prefer working remotely full time, and 34% said they would only accept a full-time remote role. Just over 60% of network engineers and 47% of software engineers shared the same sentiment.

At the end of 2021, many firms scrapped their return-to-office plans amid rising COVID-19 cases. Apple has delayed bringing its return until a "yet to be determined" date, while giving all of its corporate and retail employees $1,000 to buy equipment for their home offices. Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Uber also delayed their employees’ returns.

Lyft went a step further, pushing a return to 2023. In the midst of these safety precautions, it’s no surprise that Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman admitted to being “wrong” about his prediction that workers would be back to offices by Labor Day.

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