Ensuring Health and Safety as We Return to the Workplace

John Whyte, MD; Robert Quigley, MD


April 30, 2021

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JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD, and you're watching "Coronavirus in Context." Well, we're starting to see a lot more reopening, and some businesses are saying, you know what, employees can come back to work, or perhaps they'll be a hybrid. So I'd like to unpack: What should employers be doing? What should employees be asking? How do we manage this over the next couple of months?

So joining me is an expert, Dr. Robert Quigley. He's the senior vice president and global medical director of International SOS. Dr. Quigley, thanks for taking the time today.

ROBERT QUIGLEY: It's my pleasure. Nice to see you.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, let's get right at it. Where are we in terms of businesses reopening? What do you think is going to be happening over the next few weeks?

ROBERT QUIGLEY: Well, it's not something that's going to happen over the next few weeks. It's going to be something that is going to take many months. And it depends on what area we're talking about and what sector we're talking about. So if we're talking at a domestic level in the continental United States, I think you're going to see a rapid return to work over the next 6 months or so. If we're looking in other jurisdictions cross-border, it's going to be a lot slower.


ROBERT QUIGLEY: And again, we need to look at what industries, sectors are we talking about. So for example, if you're in the energy mining and infrastructure space, your workforce is in the field, they're in isolated areas, it's very different policies and procedures which need to be implemented. On the other hand, if you're in the financial sector and your workers work in an office, they have their own challenges.

And let's make no mistake about it, a lot of the other elements that we don't always think about are things like: Have we gotten too used to working from home? Do we even want to come back to work? Are there laws which could interfere with us coming back? We have to be sensitive to many of the rules and regulations that prevail just in our domestic United States; forget about if you've got global assets, it opens up a whole new can of worms.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, let's stick to the United States. And let's talk about some of those challenges that employers might face in bringing back employees for those that actually can be performed in work environments and not the health care sector, where typically you have to be in and see patients. But I want to ask you first: Do you expect there to be mandatory COVID vaccination? We're seeing it in return to colleges. Several colleges have announced if students want to come back, they need to be vaccinated. Are we going to see that in either the private or public sector?

ROBERT QUIGLEY: I think we could see it in the private sector, no question about that. Are we going to see it in the public sector? Unlikely. The moment you start mandating vaccinations for return to work in the country -- and there is some precedent around that issue that dates all the way back to smallpox. And there was a very famous case with which I'm sure you and your audience are familiar; I believe it was Jacobson v. Massachusetts.

And that was all about an individual who didn't want to, for personal reasons, I think he and a family member did not want to take the smallpox vaccine, and it was mandated. And I think at the end of the day, there was a financial punishment of $5 or something to that effect. So there is precedent that's there. That went to the Supreme Court. They made the decision.

In today's world, I think private companies do have that right to demand that in the spirit of public health and safety, in the spirit of protecting the other employees. But there's other issues that we have to take into consideration. There could be cultural reasons, there could be personal reasons, there could be health reasons that people can't or don't want to take the vaccine. So it's a real slippery slope, and I think we've got to be very cautious when we start talking about that issue.

JOHN WHYTE: What's the biggest challenge for employers to reopen?

ROBERT QUIGLEY: I think a lot of employers are concerned about ever returning to what they would think of as "normal." And again, normal is different for different sectors. And I think there has been, as I mentioned a few moments ago, an element of, “I'm comfortable working from home. I'm able to do just as much as I was doing in the office. I like it better here for a variety of reasons.”

And many companies feel that they need that face-to-face interaction, particularly if there's an operational element to what they do. And again, it's going to be a real, real eye opener for companies when they start phasing back. And that's how this is going to work, it's going to be phased back starting with the real essential workers or the critical workers -- we have to be careful with our choice of words -- coming back into the office, abiding by all the new rules and regulations, which will prevail for a while, the social distancing, the mask--

JOHN WHYTE: Well, I was going to ask you, are we going to see masks back in the office this fall?

ROBERT QUIGLEY: I think what we're going to see is we're going to see what the CDC is mandating. And the CDC is very, very much on top of this. They're very risk-averse. And they will be expecting people to continue to abide by the tools that we have at our disposal that we know that work.

We know that social distancing works. Whether we take it from 6 feet to 3 feet, as they've done in some jurisdictions, will remain to be seen. The masks, we know, do work. The hygienic policies do work. The screenings at the doors do work.

So I think we're going to see a lot of that still in place as we transition. And the landscape is so fluid right now, what I'm talking about now could be different a month from now. And so we have to stay on top of this. But I really am sure that a lot of the CDC recommendations will dictate what companies are doing, regardless of their sector.

JOHN WHYTE: What should employees be asking or be thinking about as they decide about returning to work into the office?

ROBERT QUIGLEY: Well, that's the million-dollar question. Some of them don't want to return to work, and some of them are looking for every reason not to return to work. On the other end of that spectrum are people putting their hand and saying, “When can I come back? I can't stand this working from home for another second.” And then there's everybody in between.

I think a lot of people are going to be concerned about, “What are you doing, Mr. or Miss Company, to take care of my health and safety? What have you done so that I know that if I return to the workplace, I am going to be protected? Whether it's your policies and procedures, whether it's your vaccine mandates, whether it's whatever measures you've put into place, I need to know.”

And that's why communication at this time of uncertainty is so critical, and I tell that to all of my clients. Talk, talk, talk. Use your internet. Use your blast emails. Use whatever vehicles you have to let the employees know that they're going to be safe when they come back and how they're going to be safe, what have you done to protect their health and safety.

JOHN WHYTE: It's going to be a moving target, in some ways. Dr. Quigley, I want to thank you for taking the time today to provide your insights and really helping us through how do we reopen in a safe way for employers and employees.

ROBERT QUIGLEY: It's my pleasure. Nice to talk with you.

JOHN WHYTE: And if you have questions about COVID, drop us a line. You can email me at DrJohn@WebMD.net, as well as post on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on April 30, 2021

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