Rising omicron cases, CDC guidance threatens businesses
The decision to cut isolation time in half for those with asymptomatic COVID-19 is seeing backlash among employee representatives and experts who say big business sparked the decision more than science did.
Crew and airline workers calling out sick made Christmas travel a nightmare across the U.S. But other industries such as retail and restaurants could be similarly impacted, leading businesses into temporary yet unintentional shutdowns — a politically unpopular way to curb the spread that President Biden is trying to avoid.
Just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Monday it would cut isolation time for asymptomatic people infected with COVID-19 from 10 days to five, Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, told CNN the reason for the change had to do with getting people back to work faster. With cases expected to surge, Fauci said, “One of the things we want to be careful of is we don’t have so many people out.”
“If you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to the jobs, especially those with essential jobs,” Fauci said. “They can get back to the workplace, doing things that are important to keep society running smoothly.”
The CDC said the change was driven by science showing that the majority of virus transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the first two days prior to onset of symptoms and the two to three days after.
But just last week, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian wrote the agency requesting the isolation be reduced to five days, arguing that more than 90 percent of the airline’s workforce is fully vaccinated while noting that airline workers wear masks in airports and on planes.
“With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations. Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions,” Bastian wrote.
Delta said the guidance announced on Monday allows more flexibility for employers to support the busy travel season, and its chief health officer, Henry Ting, called it a “safe, science-based and more practical approach” to the omicron variant of COVID-19. The CDC’s new guidance came in between Christmas and New Year’s, a busy week of travel for many Americans.
But the CDC’s change is also getting significant pushback from employee representatives for being too focused on employers and not enough on workers.
The flight attendants union called out the CDC over the revised guidelines.
“We said we wanted to hear from medical professionals on the best guidance for quarantine, not from corporate America advocating for a shortened period due to staffing shortages,” said Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson. “The CDC gave a medical explanation about why the agency has decided to reduce the quarantine requirements from 10 to five days, but the fact that it aligns with the number of days pushed by corporate America is less than reassuring,”
She warned businesses against pressuring workers to return to work before they feel better, arguing that could create a greater disruption than staffing shortages.
The White House referred to the CDC for a response to the pushback. The CDC did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
The nurses union is also against decreasing the isolation period and last week had called on the CDC to maintain the previous guidance of a 10 day isolation period.
“The arguments solely focus on maintaining business operations, revenues, and profits, without regard for science or the health of employees and the public,” National Nurses United President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez wrote to the CDC last week.
After the CDC’s decision to cut isolation time, Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement, “Let’s be clear: This is about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health.”
The push against the change comes as shortages of nurses working in nursing homes, in particular, have caused several states to call the National Guard to help with work around facilities. Nursing homes’ employment level has dropped 14 percent, or 221,000 lost jobs, since the start of the pandemic, according to data last month from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.
Other sectors that welcomed the revised recommendations included the Business Roundtable, which includes members like Amazon, American Airlines, CVS and the U.S. Travel Association.
“This measure will help travelers and mitigate staffing issues and should have a stabilizing effect across the travel economy. Adapting safety standards to the evolving health crisis will allow the economy to continue its recovery while ensuring layers of safety of travelers,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel executive vice president of public affairs and policy.
The National Retail Federation also hailed the new commendation as welcome news. Employment in retail declined last month, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Dec. 3, which was dismal news for the industry that typically sees an uptick in hires for the holiday season.
“Retailers have and continue to prioritize the health and safety of customers and employees, and this directive provides additional clarity as we continue to navigate these uncertain times and serve our customers in the communities where they live and work,” said Stephanie Martz, the National Retail Federation’s chief administrative officer and general counsel.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote to the CDC earlier this month requesting updated isolation guidelines. He noted that millions of fully vaccinated Americans becoming infected means “effectively crippling America’s workforce.”
One former Trump administration official who worked on the pandemic response criticized the CDC’s messaging in recent weeks, arguing that the Biden administration has sent mixed messages while cases surge across the country.
“It looks bad that this is in response to a business push, not necessarily the science,” the former Trump official said in response to the CDC shortening the required isolation time. “Very Republican of them.”
Todd Vachon, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University, said the beneficiary of the new recommendations is largely businesses, many of which are already struggling to find workers.
“I would assume the CDC is making its decision based upon the latest science around the virus and its transmissibility, not the business interests of some employers,” he said. “But the decision certainly does benefit employers that are already experiencing a shortage of workers willing to fill many essential jobs.”
Brett Samuels contributed.
Updated at 9:18 a.m.
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