More infectious, less restrictions: How omicron is impacting workers

By: - January 28, 2022 5:18 am

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As the most infectious COVID-19 variant yet continues to ravage Michigan and crescendo toward an expected peak in the coming weeks, workers are grappling with new challenges almost two years into the pandemic. 

Not only do they have to be on guard against faster-spreading omicron, but there are virtually no health restrictions.

“[Omicron] is trickier than delta,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, University of Michigan chief health officer and an infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine. “It’s highly infectious … and also, omicron exhibits immune evasion. So both prior infection and vaccination are less effective at preventing symptomatic infection.”

Two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 case rates have reached their highest level yet in Michigan. But with businesses and hospitals still desperately needing workers, Malani said there is more pressure to come to work sick. Nonetheless, some businesses across the state have closed — not because of government mandates, like in the early phase of the pandemic — but because of COVID outbreaks in the workplace.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported last week that cases are increasing “exponentially” and will not start to taper off until sometime between the end of this month or February. The trend of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases began in November as numbers have reached new heights as omicron swept in.

 

Those include a new record of more than 20,000 cases per day as of Jan. 7, along with a new record of 4,580 adults hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Jan. 10 — the highest number yet of patients hospitalized with confirmed cases in Michigan.

As of Wednesday, DHHS reports that a total of 1,933,062 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 29,605 have died from the virus — an additional 27,423 cases and 379 deaths recorded since Monday.

Michigan continues to struggle with vaccination rates. About 65% of Michiganders ages 5 and older have now received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 58% of eligible residents have had two Moderna or Pfizer or shots or one of the J&J vaccine. Compared with other states, COVID ActNow rates Michigan as having the 34th-highest vaccination rate (one or more doses) in the country.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer initially set a goal of having 70% of those 16 and older vaccinated, some experts now say that 90% vaccination rates are needed to achieve true herd immunity and stop the spread.

Coming to work with COVID

Many workers, like Jaime Christenson, are feeling the squeeze during the months-long COVID surge in Michigan.

Christenson is an SEIU worker in the Food and Nutrition Services at Trinity Mercy-Health Muskegon. She told the Advance last week she and her colleagues are feeling discouraged about wage issues and COVID-19 protocols she feels are unfair and do not effectively protect them from the virus.

“I don’t think it is right for Trinity to make us use our PTO [paid time off] time if we get sick with COVID,” Christenson said. “Because we’re already short-staffed, showing up to work, doing what we’re supposed to do. And the risk of getting COVID from a co-worker, patient, a visitor, all of those things — it’s all a risk.”

Trinity and its union workers are currently engaged in contract negotiations that have gone on for years. Members of the SEIU Healthcare Michigan Union say there are still many disagreements between the two parties, including some related to wages and working conditions.

Christenson described a “double-edged sword” scenario for she and her colleagues who contract COVID-19.

The hospital requirement for a 10-day quarantine after contracting the virus recently shortened to five days, following new and somewhat controversial guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in late December.

So when Christenson and her colleagues come to the end of those five days, they receive a call from Trinity asking if they are symptomatic. If the worker says they are symptom-free, they can come back to work. If the worker signals that they are still experiencing symptoms, they cannot come back to work yet but also risk using their PTO or short-term disability leave to cover those extra days post-quarantine.

“You can still be symptomatic after five days, and then what? And then you have to start using your PTO time, your short-term disability time. When in all actuality, you probably got COVID while you were working in your position at the hospital, taking care of patients,” Christenson said.

In a Monday email, Trinity Health Michigan said it adopted the CDC’s five-day quarantine guidance “after careful consideration” during this period of contingency staffing.

In settings like health care where the need is so high, there’s going to be pressure to come back to work before you really should.

– Dr. Preeti Malani, University of Michigan chief health officer and an infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine

“Under contingency staffing status, colleagues who tested positive for COVID can return to work after 5 days, if asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic (with improving symptoms). We do not require a negative test to return to work, as many people continue to test positive for weeks even if they are not infectious,” Trinity’s statement reads.

The paid leave remains in effect for up to five days for eligible employees. After that, “colleagues who need extended time off will use Paid Time Off, unpaid time, workers’ compensation or other appropriate time off, once the COVID-19 Paid Leave is used.”

That Catch-22 for workers with COVID-19 only adds to the burnout and exhaustion she and her colleagues are already feeling.

“Morale is down,” Christenson said. “… I believe that the majority of the colleagues at Mercy-Health feel like they’re not being compensated and/or appreciated for the work that we do.”

SEIU spokesperson Kevin Lignell says the union is bargaining with Trinity to fight back against the new five-day rule.

“This is tough, and this is one of the criticisms of the new [CDC] guidance,” Malani said.

“In settings like health care where the need is so high, there’s going to be pressure to come back to work before you really should.”

Christenson said it’s unsettling that her colleagues could come back to work next to her too early if they don’t want to sacrifice their paid time off. She said she was truthful about being asymptomatic after the end of her quarantine when she caught COVID-19 this year, but she knows others might not be.

“All of the colleagues at the hospital are once again putting themselves at risk to care for the patient,” Christenson said.

Malani said this continued anxiety around health concerns and work nearly two years in the pandemic has many employees like Christenson feeling burnout.

“There’s a lot of fatigue. … There’s not this shared purpose [anymore],” Malani said. 

“It’s just different. It’s not all bad, but it’s different. I think some of the things that help sustain you [at work] are not there. And it’s traumatic for people. And so many of the bad outcomes that we see are preventable, and I think that is really difficult to watch,” she said.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Schools and politics

Malani said she was much more hopeful once the vaccines first came out in December 2020, as it seemed we could get a handle on the virus to an extent and life could go somewhat back to “normal.”

Now, the new variants are making that more difficult.

“This is becoming an endemic infection. It’s still a pandemic; we’re still in the middle of a surge. Things are not good in Michigan,” Malani said. Looking forward, she added, “The communities that are highly vaccinated are going to do the best” at returning to a sense of normal.

But since the early days of the pandemic, Republican leaders and lawmakers in Michigan have been pushing back against vaccines, mask mandates and efforts to impose restrictions on businesses and schools to stop the spread. Currently, there are virtually no COVID restrictions in the state.

Still, many Michigan Republicans continue to berate Whitmer and her administration for restrictions and shutdowns — even as some schools and businesses are choosing to close down because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

In her State of the State address Wednesday, Whitmer said she wants all schools open for in-person learning.

“Some of the issues have gotten politicized … so that makes [dealing with this new wave] extra complicated,” Malani said.

Thomas Morgan, a spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said public health decisions for schools come down to the local level but members are encouraged to be vaccinated and masked.

“We believe the MDHHS and CDC recommendations for universal masking in schools are in everyone’s best interest. At the end of the day, the most important thing is keeping students and school employees and families safe,” Morgan said.

“That needs to take precedence regardless of any efforts we might see to politicize those measures. … I think everyone’s sick of the politics behind it.”

The MEA represents about 120,000 teachers, education support professionals and higher education employees in Michigan. Morgan said about 90% of those members are vaccinated.

Some school districts have been forced to shut down or transition to virtual learning due to staffing issues and/or COVID-19 outbreaks.

Business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM), have largely joined Republicans in opposing measures that would shut down businesses.

“Small business owners continue to face one obstacle after another, nearly two years after the onset of the pandemic,” said Brian Calley, a former GOP lieutenant governor and current president and CEO of SBAM on Wednesday. “After dealing with closures and restrictions, there is a new set of significant challenges small business owners face.

“Workforce shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions are prevalent issues that have the ability to jeopardize their success.”

George Frey/Getty Images

According to a recent SBAM survey of 600 small businesses in the state, the group says that supply chain disruptions, workforce shortages and inflation are the biggest problems they currently face.

About 66% of the small businesses also said it is harder to find and keep staff, and 87% reported higher costs than before the pandemic.

The state’s most recent jobless numbers, released Thursday by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB), show Michigan’s unemployment rate was about 5.6% during December.

Though still above pre-pandemic levels, the rate is still markedly better now compared to the beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020, Michigan’s jobless rate had risen sharply to a historic 22.7%.

For workers running a heightened risk of catching omicron like Christenson, however, being back at work could still present health and financial challenges.

“One thing that has happened — and this has been a worry all along — is that when [COVID-19] rates are so high in the community, health care workers are also sick,” Malani said. “And … whether it’s a business or health care or school, they haven’t had enough people to do their daily business.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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