This year’s July 4th holiday weekend marked an inflection point for America’s ongoing emergence from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Multiple national news outlets noted how the anniversary of the country’s independence has coincided with significant indicators of resuming pre-pandemic behavior. Commenting on July 4th celebrations in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post described the weekend’s festivities as “an Independence Day that resembled some version of a normal one.” CNN reported on President Joe Biden’s July 4th remarks outside the White House, where he declared, “We can say with confidence America is coming back together. 245 years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we are closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” Axios Media echoed the president’s sentiments with a headline announcing, “It’s July 4 and America’s back.” Axios went on to report that 64.1% of Americans 12 and older have gotten at least one shot of a COVID vaccine.
Even before the holiday weekend, big companies were making news by announcing return-to-work policies: some of Wall Street’s top banks had already declared vaccination status reporting requirements and return-to-office dates starting in July. While these mandates may seem extreme, they actually reflect the preferences of incoming members of the workforce. The Wall Street Journal has reported that a recent survey by hiring company iCIMS found that nearly two-thirds of college seniors want to be “mostly in the office,” whether in banking or other industries. Only two percent of these Gen-Z students surveyed wanted fully remote employment arrangements.
All of these headlines and news articles demonstrate that people are ready and willing to return to shared spaces and pre-pandemic routines with decreasing fear of risk. According to polling from the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index at the end of June 2021, 72% of respondents described a return to their pre-coronavirus lives as carrying “small to no risk” – up from 29% a year prior in June 2020. Nevertheless, as America makes a return to pre-pandemic habits and routines, risks will persist despite our evolving confidence in vaccines and safety protocols: look no further than reports on recent upticks in COVID cases due to the delta variant, which has been described as “highly contagious” and “hypertransmissible.” Due to this contrast between ongoing risks and increasing desires to return to “normal,” the importance of effective disinfection is now more significant than ever. As people return to pre-pandemic behaviors, it will be increasingly crucial to mitigate risk and manage transmission threats of coronavirus variants and other common pathogens in the spaces and air we share.
In a July 2nd opinion piece for the Boston Herald, Dr. Paula Fujiwara highlighted this challenge by asking, “What are we willing to accept as the new normal?” Dr. Fujiwara’s credentials include past service as the science director at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease and as the director of the Bureau of TB Control in the New York City Department of Health. In her article, she cites an employee survey commissioned by R-Zero in which 91% of employees surveyed indicated that they believe their employer is “responsible when it comes to making sure they are safe from COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses at the office.” In that same survey, 3 in 5 pre-COVID office workers said they would likely look for another job if their employer did not implement sufficient infection prevention protocols at the office.
Both of these data points illustrate changing values and priorities within the existing global workforce that contrast with the attitudes of new Gen-Z workforce entrants (as reported in The Wall Street Journal). The shift among more experienced workers has been manifesting itself as what Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has termed “the great resignation.” Describing this phenomenon to Bloomberg Businessweek, Professor Klotz noted that the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic led to a backlog of resignations that will now be amplified by “pandemic-related epiphanies” regarding how employees want to spend and balance their time between work and non-work life. As businesses consider reopening and inviting their employees back into office buildings, they must do so knowing that their employees will be watching and evaluating employers’ decisions closely and making decisions about their own futures accordingly. As University of Denver aerosol scientist Alex Huffman recently observed in a June 11th New York Times article, “I think it’s important for us as a community, but also individual employers, to think about these questions in relation to not just this week and this month. How do we make decisions now that benefit the safety and health of our work spaces well into the future?”
Dr. Fujiwara summarizes this responsibility to address concerns as the “need for a healthier normal” and points to the hierarchy of infection control as a roadmap for achieving success. The CDC outlines the hierarchy of controls on a spectrum from most effective to least effective, noting that the most effective control solution is elimination – physically removing an infection hazard. By contrast, the least effective solution is PPE – protecting the worker with personal protective equipment.
In reviewing the administrative controls at institutions’ disposal, Dr. Fujiwara notes, “each institution needs its own evidence-based administrative strategy tailored to its unique environment” and indicates that “creating infection control policies and protocols may require engaging technical and behavioral experts and bringing stakeholders, such as school boards or employees, along in the process.” In her explanation of the controls that organizations can employ to manage risk, Dr. Fujiwara admonishes, “How we design and clean the air and physical spaces around us to control infection transmission is perhaps the most overlooked and neglected part of the hierarchy, but it’s absolutely essential.” Implementing infection control policies and protocols is a critical way to ensure environmental safety.
So what does a healthier normal entail? Dr. Fujiwara predicts, “In a new, healthier normal, every institution has an integrated suite of evidence-based environmental strategies that disinfect and intercept diseases in air, surfaces, and water.” She highlights UV-C light as “a gold standard for disinfection…being used daily in schools, jails, gyms, restaurants, and more to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other infectious organisms.” Other researchers agree with Dr. Fujiwara’s assessment. Calling UV-C an “old physics route,” a team publishing in the American Chemical Society online journal confirmed in June 2020, “UV-C light satisfies the requirements of rapid, widespread, and economically viable deployment. Its implementation is only limited by current production capacities, an increase of which requires swift intervention by industry and authorities.”
Through R-Zero’s commitment to a healthier normal enabled by biosafety technology innovation, like UV-C, the opportunities to use UV as an intervention tactic are increasing. Organizations navigating changing work culture and employee expectations can implement environmental strategies to ensure a higher standard for human health and safety indoors – whatever the future of pathogenic risk may hold. This adaptability and willingness to adopt new measures will enable a post-pandemic society that exceeds expectations and facilitates safer spaces for all.
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