Navigating COVID Complexity in 2021 to Stay Resilient

Dr. David Acheson M.D.
Contributing Writer

As we enter 2021, Food & Beverage, CPG, and other manufacturers can see a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Yet, we’re still very much in the tunnel, and it’s important for decision makers to pay close attention to the situation as it changes rapidly. Here’s a closer look at where we are now, and what we might expect as we progress through the coming year.

Sticking to the Basics

Although recommendations change daily, adhering to the best practices which have now been in place for months will continue to protect the workforce through 2021. This includes:

  •       Wearing face coverings

  •       Handwashing

  •       Social distancing

  •       Staying out of work if symptoms develop

The Phases of COVID

As of the beginning of January, there had been three major waves of COVID cases: the initial outbreak in March/April, a second spike in June and July as many restrictions were lifted, and a third one heading out of the holidays. While the daily death rate continues to be daunting, medical professionals are getting better at handling the disease. Testing has also increased, and we’ve become better able to identify COVID symptoms early on.

Currently we are seeing a wave of COVID-19 variants emerge from different parts of the world including the UK, South Africa and Brazil. These variants appear to be more transmissible but do not result in more severe disease.  It is too early to say what the impact of the variants will have on vaccine efficacy. 

Changing in CDC Guidance

Previously, people in the general population who were in close-contact with someone with COVID were instructed to quarantine and not to return to work for 14 days. Now, however, research indicates that the risk of transmitting the virus decreases by day seven, and decreases further by day ten. Based on this data, the CDC has indicated that employees may return to work after seven days post-infection if they have tested negative using a PCR or antigen test.

This update can help balance risk with operational need, as having employees quarantined for 14 days can put a strain on companies. With that being said, it’s important to adhere to local regulations, as jurisdictions have adopted these guidelines differently. Global food safety and public health consulting group, The Acheson Group (TAG), recommends companies have employees wait until Day 7 to take the test, and use the PCR versus rapid antigen test, as it is more sensitive.

CDC guidance has also allowed people who work in critical infrastructure to not quarantine and continue to work even if they are a close-contact. TAG generally recommends against this approach if someone has a household member who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Further Testing Options

There are three main types of testing:

Individual Testing- This is recommended when someone has been in close contact with a COVID-19-positive individual. It’s based on the new CDC Quarantine Guidance  “options to reduce quarantine.”

Group Testing- Group testing is a regulatory requirement in some areas, such as in California, where it’s mandated by OSHA when three or more individuals in an organization test positive over a specific timeframe in a workplace. Known as surveillance testing, this method is designed to test a portion of a population at regular intervals. The goal is to detect small clusters before they have the chance to become big outbreaks.

Full Populating Testing- Finally, full population testing can be used to determine the infection status of a population at any given time. This is useful during large outbreaks, when restarting a facility or office, and is also used in colleges.

COVID-19 Vaccines

On December 11, 2020, Pfizer received its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA. According to phase three studies conducted with 44,000 subjects, the vaccine is 95% effective after two doses, taken 21 days apart. Of those who were vaccinated and still contracted COVID-19, the disease was less severe.

The FDA also approved the Moderna vaccine a week later, which has an efficacy rate of 94%. Both are mRNA vaccines, which use the body’s cells to produce part of the SARS-CoV-2 surface protein to stimulate an immune response.  

In China and Germany, a different approach is underway. The nations’ researchers are working on adenovirus vaccines as the delivery vehicle for the vaccine, which induce both innate and adaptive immune responses. This also is the technology being used by AstraZeneca for which the UK provided approval. This vaccine has not been approved in the United States thus far.

Vaccines bring a major breakthrough in fighting the pandemic, but there’s still much we don’t know. Specifically, we don’t know whether they could help prevent the spread if a vaccinated person still gets it and is asymptomatic. Moreover, experts have yet to pinpoint exactly how long immunity lasts, though some speculate a year or longer.

As such, it’s important that we still continue practicing risk reduction. Through at least the early part of 2021, facilities should continue to enforce social distancing and similar safety measures, and avoid changing any practices that help to mitigate the spread. Additionally, if a person is vaccinated but still develops COVID-like symptoms, it shouldn’t be assumed that they have a different illness.

Who Will Get the Vaccine?

The CDC has a tiered plan for rolling out the vaccine, divided among key populations recommending that:

  • Group 1a receive the vaccine first/ this includes healthcare workers and residents in long-term care facilities

  • Group 1b receive the vaccine next; this includes critical infrastructure individuals, totaling more than 87 million people across utilities, transportation, food, and more

 However, because the individual states and territories are responsible for determining allocations to critical populations and managing the distribution of the vaccines received from the federal government, the plan can vary among states and territories. A good resource for determining your state’s plan is the National Governors Association vaccine webpage. Recently the Department of Health and Human Services also began recommending that everyone 65 older receive the vaccine as soon as possible

Allergy Warning

The Pfizer vaccine has been shown to cause acute allergic reactions in some individuals, though at a rate of only about 11 per million doses. These reactions are unpredictable and  there were a couple severe reactions recorded, so the recommendation currently is to administer the vaccine only  where emergency rescue equipment is available.

Employers' Role

Under U.S. law, employers could mandate vaccination for their employees. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should, and Food & Beverage companies should give serious consideration to this matter.

Employees are looking to their companies as a trusted source of information. Thus, it will remain imperative to stay current with COVID-19, vaccinations, and pertinent topics as they change almost daily. Organizations should rely on prosocial behavior to share information, discuss important topics, and maintain transparency. They can also look towards their state and local authorities for guidance in terms of what’s being recommended among their communities.


About the Author

Dr. David Acheson M.D. is the Founder and CEO of The Acheson Group (TAG) and brings more than 30 years of medical and food safety research experience to the firm. Including Former Associate Commissioner for Foods at FDA and Chief Medical Officer at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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