By: Blue Ocean Brain writer and contributor Martha Burwell
Many health officials are predicting that we’ll see the Covid-19 pandemic shift to endemic status this year. Endemic is defined as a disease outbreak that is routinely present but is limited to a particular time of year or geographic region.
In the United States, public policy changes in this direction have already begun, with protections rapidly lifting, even though infection rates continue to rise in some areas.
Being immunocompromised in 2022
While recent variants such as Omicron are seemingly milder for some than the original variant, it is not mild for many immunocompromised and disabled people, like me. About 5% of the U.S. population, or nearly 17 million people, have immune systems that don’t function properly - often due to genetic disease, medication, or treatment such as organ transplant or chemotherapy. For those of us in this category, Omicron still has high death rates and is more likely to cause life-altering, long-term medical conditions.
Research has shown that the vaccine is also less effective for this community. However, the CDC has yet to provide protocols to navigate this uncertainty. Unlike those with healthy immune systems who can rely on the vaccine’s effectiveness, immunocompromised people like me must assume that the vaccine provides us little to no protection. This means that a large number of us, as well as our caregivers and loved ones, have been forced to become more isolated as protections have lifted while covid cases remain high.
We have also faced increasing discrimination and overt bias. Asking for more personal space in public places such as grocery stores often results in harassment and even threats. Job opportunities have been withdrawn when we cannot safely participate in in-person meetings or are unable to work in settings where safety measures are not enforced.
There’s a lot you can do to support immunocompromised employees. And, by extension, this will help keep all your employees safer.
WFH policies: As many workplaces are shifting back to in-person work, be sure to make this shift mindfully. If possible, maintain work-from-home flexibility. Take efforts to build systems that prevent a hierarchy from emerging that prioritizes in-person work. For example, use meeting moderation techniques so that those joining online aren’t accidentally excluded or spoken over by in-person staff.
WFH logistical support: Not everyone has access to a comfortable working station at home or can afford the luxury of a dedicated office space. This is particularly true for parents, caregivers of elderly or disabled family members, and those living in multigenerational households (usually people of color). Others may have limited access to comfortable office furniture or high-speed Wi-Fi (often people living in rural areas). At the start of the pandemic, some workplaces offered stipends for WFH employees to set up a more comfortable space. Consider making this a permanent part of your budget. Also, schedule routine check-ins to ask your WFH employees how you can support them logistically, and follow up on their recommendations.
Team building: Be intentionally inclusive in your team-building efforts. Host remote events where possible. If you must host in-person team events, create permanent accessibility and covid safety norms (such as requiring vaccinations and mask-wearing) that simply become part of the “the way things are done” at your organization. Importantly, ensure management is responsible for enforcing such norms, rather than putting this work onto the shoulders of your immunocompromised team members.
Flexible scheduling: If possible, offer employees flexible schedules and/or the option of condensed workweeks. Most immunocompromised workers are deeply fatigued, and cases of burnout over the last two years have skyrocketed. This would benefit all employees by allowing them to prioritize their health and family responsibilities, as well as drive retention during a time when employees are resigning at record numbers.
Community support: While every single life has been impacted by the pandemic, immunocompromised individuals have faced significantly more risk, isolation, discrimination, and health impacts than others. Consider offering resources and support for an immunocompromised or disability ERG (employee resource group). Finding community and sharing experiences can be lifesaving.
Language matters: In the United States, the language around covid-19 safety like “mask mandates” and “gathering restrictions” has centered around abled people. Instead, use language that focuses on community care and how individual actions can protect others, such as “mask protections” and “safe gatherings.” Also, avoid using slang or language that makes light of Covid-19. While humor can be a coping mechanism for some, many immunocompromised individuals find joking about a life-threatening illness offensive.
Deeply listen: Most importantly, ask immunocompromised people (and those who are caregivers for at-risk individuals) what accommodations and support they would like. You may wish to start with an anonymous survey, as you may have employees with “invisible” disabilities that you’re unaware of. During this conversation, listen deeply and offer ideas while refraining from making assumptions about needs or abilities.
There’s no denying that the coronavirus is here to stay. But we have enormous power in how we respond to it in our workplaces. One option is to return to pre-pandemic behavior. This comes at a great cost to immunocompromised and disabled individuals and their families, in favor of the preferences and convenience of others. A second option is to adjust to slightly different behaviors that normalize protections and build inclusion, simply making them part of everyday routines. I hope that you choose this option.