Two months after dropping their requirements that vaccinated employees wear facial coverings while doing indoor work, some of Chattanooga's biggest employers are bringing back mask mandates for their workers, whether they are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus or not.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, America's biggest public utility, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state's biggest health insurer, both reimposed mask requirements Wednesday for all of their employees when they enter and move about their corporate offices. The move by the biggest downtown employers in Chattanooga follows the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended fully vaccinated individuals wear face coverings indoors when working around other people.
Most of the more than 10,000 employees and contractors for TVA and BlueCross in Chattanooga are still working from home as part of the companies' remote work programs designed to limit in-person interactions which might spread the COVID-19 virus. But as the employers prepare to bring back most of their staff to the office after Labor Day for at least part of each workweek, mask mandates are returning in response to a resurgence in infections and the rise of the delta variant.
"We're going back to our previous protocol of requiring masks whether you are vaccinated or not and making sure we are keeping our proper social distances," said Sue Collins, TVA's executive vice president of human resources and communications. "The good news is that we had this in place for a significant period of time before so we didn't have to reinvent anything. Our employees are great at responding to what is needed to keep the public and themselves safe at all times."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, citing new science on the transmissibility of the delta variant, changed its mask guidance to now recommend everyone in areas with substantial or high levels of transmission - vaccinated or not - wear a mask in public, indoor settings. The Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday evening reinstituted the federal government's requirement that all federal workers, contractors and visitors to federal facilities must wear masks in areas that have seen an increase in COVID-19 infections, including Tennessee.
"In areas of substantial or high community transmission, agencies must require all federal employees, onsite contractors and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask inside of federal buildings," Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said in an email to all federal offices.
Visitors and workers entering the federal courthouse building in Chattanooga, which houses a Post Office and several federal agencies along with the U.S. District Court, are now required to wear a mask to enter the building.
At the Chattanooga-based BlueCross of Tennessee which is Chattanooga's biggest private employer, a "mask in motion" mandate was restored Wednesday requiring that all employees and visitors wear a facial covering any time they're moving about in BlueCross buildings – such as walking to their desks or visiting common spaces - even for those who are vaccinated from COVID-19 and previously were able to move about mask free.
"We are still encouraging employees to get vaccinated and offering more onsite opportunities to do so," BlueCross spokesman John Hawbaker said. "Our changes align with CDC and local guidance, and we'll continue to look to these experts as we make decisions for our teams."
The new CDC guidelines may complicate back-to-the-office plans by some employers. On Wednesday, the tech giants Google and Facebook announced plans to require employees who returned to offices to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
"Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead," said Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet, Google's parent company, which has 144,000 U.S. employees.
Google also said it would push back its official return-to-office date to mid-October from September.
Meanwhile, the nation's second-largest hospital chain, Ascension Health, said it will now require all of its employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 12. Ascension, which operates more than 150 hospitals, said it "conducted a thorough moral and ethical analysis as part of the decision-making process" and the decision to require employees to get vaccinated "is rooted in our mission commitment to leading with quality and safety.
"As a healthcare provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities is foundational to our work," Ascension Health said in a statement announcing the vaccination mandate.
More than 611,000 Americans and 4.1 million persons worldwide have died so far from COVID-19, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Less than 58% of Americans ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, and as of Monday, only 44% of eligible Tennesseans have been vaccinated for the coronavirus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.