Annual peak Covid seasons are here to stay. The world of work will pay a big price

This year's flu season is going to be “a whopper,” according to former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and Pfizer board member Dr. Scott Gottlieb. But it's not 2021, or any single year health crisis, which is going to cause the biggest issues for the economy in a post-pandemic future. According to Gottlieb, it is the twin specter of an annual peak flu season and the beginning of a perennial peak Covid season which together will cost the economy and workers more than can be imagined.

Gottlieb told CNBC he believes the end of the pandemic phase of Covid-19 is in sight, but matching the outlook of many epidemiologists, he says the endemic phase is coming. Or in other words, Covid is never going away for good.

Much like the flu season, an annual Covid season should be expected, and businesses need to prepare for that, Gottlieb said during a recent video interview with CNBC. Covid will be a “persistent risk, persistent virus that circulates every year,” he said.

Already, the flu season costs businesses billions of dollars a year. According to employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the 2019-2020 flu season alone cost employers $13 billion, but the cost in lost output has ben as high as $21 billion in recent years.

“The total hit on public health and also productivity is going to be too great for us to sustain and just be 'business as usual,'” Gottlieb said. Taking into account the tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs that the flu costs the economy annually, he said that adding Covid on top of this, “will just be too much to bear, in my view.” 

Business colleagues with protective face masks using infrared thermometer for measuring temperature before entrance in office.filadendron | E+ | Getty Images

Right now, the U.S. is transitioning from the pandemic phase to the endemic phase of the virus. It is not yet clear the precise timing of that change. “It is going to be messy and it is going to be unclear,” he said. “We will know when we look back a few year from now.”

Because most workers aren't back in the office yet, and most employers are not contemplating bringing everyone back into the office soon, they haven't had to contemplate what happens when we go back in full time. “That's more likely 2022,” he said. But Gottlieb added that he does believe we are now seeing the last major surge of infection during the pandemic phase, caused by Delta, and businesses do need to be thinking about the long-term.

“I don't think that businesses have really undergone a very comprehensive approach to how they improve the work environment, the work flow,” he said. “We need to start thinking about this. It isn't just improving the air system. It's changing the work day. So that question becomes how do businesses deal with the fact that this is going to circulate at least on par with the flu.”

As this year's flu season begins, here are a few of the ideas the former FDA commissioner highlighted that businesses need to start thinking about to create a permanent work environment that is safer for employees and better for the economy. 

De-densification of offices should be permanent, but can be seasonal

Many changes will need to be made to the physical office environment. Upgrading an office to hospital- grade air filtration, for example, is an engineering expense that will create a safer environment for workers, according to Gottlieb, as will increasing access to outdoor space and monitoring air quality. But there are other in-office solutions as well.

One is moving away from the tightly packed offices that had become common in the open floor plan era. That is expected to be a feature of office redesigns as a result of Covid, and Gottlieb said it needs to be a permanent feature. To de-densify offices “especially in the peak Covid flu season” he said, would help reduce the risk.

Many employees want a hybrid work option and allowing workers the flexibility of working from home could help de-densify space in the office. For months, employers have had to combat the “great resignation” in the labor force. Businesses have been forced to offer hybrid options and more flexible work schedules to attract workers. Now, that offering may be in the best interest of public health as well. 

Zoom into meetings, from inside the office

Businesses have conducted remote meetings for 18 months now, but even as workers return to the office the Zoom camera may not be going away. Gottlieb said one way employers could keep workers safe is by encouraging Zooming into meetings “even within the office so you are not crowding people into conference rooms.”

Giving workers to option to Zoom into meetings, even those working in the office, will control crowding in dense areas and could help keep employees socially distanced. 

One of the reasons cited by CEOs for bringing workers back to offices is the inability to recreate the creative spark and serendipity of in-person collaboration through Zooms, but Gottlieb says more of this new office collaboration needs to occur.

“Those are the kinds of things we need to think about doing if we are serious about trying to avoid unnecessary interactions that can be conducive to spread,” Gottlieb said.

Alternative transportation ideas

For employees commuting by public transit, flexible work hours could be beneficial. Asking workers to commute to the office during off-peak hours, instead of peak hours, will reduce crowding on subways, buses and trains during those high-traffic hours.

Instead of public transit, Gottlieb said alternative transportation could also be an option for employers to consider offering employees. “Trying to find alternative transportation so everyone isn't crowding on public transportation” is another way businesses can keep workers safe, he said.

“There are things businesses can do, at least over the period of time when this virus will be circulating, sort of peak Covid season, to try to reduce risk and improve respiratory health, and we need to think about what that construct will look like,” Gottlieb said.

By Alicia Doniger, CNBC Strategic Content Intern

On Thursday, November 12, CNBC is hosting its first annual Workforce Executive Council summit for influential CHROs and Chief Diversity Officers from 1-4 p.m. ET. Apply to the WEC to attend at www.cnbccouncils.com/wec.

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