While COVID-19 cases are not expected to surge this winter like 2020 and 2021, there are some things you can implement within your business to make sure employees stay healthy through the holidays. Photo via Getty Images

Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world economy in March 2020, it has not been business as usual. Last winter presented new challenges to small businesses as the Omicron variant caused a surge in cases and hospitalizations throughout the country, interrupting business once again.

Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted less of a surge this winter than in 2020 and 2021 in a recent White House briefing. The CDC also reports the 32 percent of Americans who remain unvaccinated, whether for personal or medical reasons, remain at greater risk. Cases are not yet trending upward in Texas at a pace for concern, but neighboring New Mexico is experiencing an upswing, as is Arizona, according to data from the Mayo Clinic.

That raises the question, yet again, of how to address the issue with employees nearly three years into the pandemic. Businesses need to evaluate their plans now for a likely increase in coronavirus cases.

Evaluate risk factors

Each small business faces a different risk from a coronavirus surge based on its operations, employees and business model. Unlike bigger corporations, small businesses cannot easily reallocate staff when the coronavirus spreads within the workplace. If an infection spreads to a majority of the team, leanly staffed businesses may need to shut down until employees can return to work.

For businesses producing or distributing consumer or industrial goods, a coronavirus surge in a factory or warehouse could further impact delivery times or disrupt the supply chain. Likewise, independent medical practices, spas or gyms with daily in-person contact could face major impacts in the event of coronavirus spreading between employees and clients. On the other hand, a client services agency like a law firm with a hybrid schedule may face less of a risk, provided sick employees feel well enough to work from home.

Risk will also vary based on vaccination rates, age and health of staff. Employers should be careful to protect employee’s privacy but asking whether an employee is vaccinated does not violate any laws if the question is limited to a yes-or-no answer, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Federal law also does not prohibit employers from requiring all employees to be vaccinated in some circumstances but employers who wish to explore that option should consult with legal counsel to understand the risks.

Finally, businesses need to understand their community risk factors. Find out where weekly coronavirus data is reported within the region and assign responsibility to HR for tracking this data. If cases begin to peak, that could signal growing risk to the business and workers.

Based on the evaluation of risk factors to employees and business operations, determine how a possible surge could impact profitability. If possible, crunch the numbers on revenue and losses for a clear understanding of the financial ramifications. This data will help guide protocols.

Address preventive measures

In the early days of the pandemic, many businesses introduced requirements for employees to test regularly or remain home if experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus. While some businesses have discontinued these policies, they represent a helpful starting point for preventive protocols to implement during another surge.

Businesses who face a significant risk from a coronavirus surge may wish to introduce regular testing at once-a-week intervals, regardless of whether employee show coronavirus symptoms. Communicate to employees about why these protocols are necessary. In July 2022, Pew Research Center found only 41 percent of Americans view the coronavirus as a major threat to public health, down from 67 percent in July 2020. That means employees may take fewer precautions in their own lives and benefit from a reminder of the potential coronavirus impacts to business.

Staggered schedules can further lower the risk of a coronavirus breakout in the workplace, especially for the largest teams on staff. A business with a hybrid remote work policy may divide teams into “pods” where employees only come into the workplace on the same day as other workers in their pod. This approach can contain the potential coronavirus spread to the individuals within the pod while allowing in-person collaboration to continue.

It is important to keep in mind these policies present their own costs in the form of coronavirus test kits, if provided to employees by the business, the cost of employees’ time and possible reduced productivity. Considering these tradeoffs, entirely remote startups or small businesses with less risk of spreading coronavirus between teams may decide against mandatory testing and staggered schedules. Businesses who make that decision should carefully monitor coronavirus data in their communities in case circumstances should change.

Set protocols for illnesses

Regardless of mandatory testing and staggered schedules, all small businesses should put coronavirus policies in place, including how to respond with symptoms present and for those who test positive, but may not have symptoms. When setting policies for those who test positive or someone in their household tests positive, it is important to get the latest information on quarantines from the CDC and communicate these policies clearly with employees.

If vaccination status is unknown, set a rule applying to everyone. Policies to prevent a coronavirus case from spreading include a requirement for exposed employees to work remotely for the quarantine period or wear a mask and socially distance in the workplace. While small businesses and startups often take pride in their flexible approaches, coronavirus policies should be fair and standardized for all.

The worst of the pandemic may be over, and by planning for the likelihood of a winter coronavirus surge, businesses can help ensure it stays that way.

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Jill Chapman is a director of early talent programs with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.

A team out of the engineering school at Rice University has created a technology for real-time wastewater monitoring. Photo via rice.edu

Houston research team snags $2M grant for virus sensing tech

money moves

A team of researchers from Rice University have received a $2 million grant to develop a unique technology that speeds up the analysis of wastewater for viruses from hours to seconds.

The team is based out of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and led by Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of the technology, which includes wastewater-testing bioelectric sensors that deliver immediate notice of presence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a news release from Rice.

The research project — with its partners at the Houston Health Department — have already developed water testing procedures and have analyzed samples from locations around the city. The current process includes taking samples and transferring them to Rice for analysis, but the new technology would be able to monitor systems onsite and instantly. The parties involved with this work are also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Center of Excellence for wastewater epidemiology that was announced in August.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID has been pretty effective as a way to get an idea of where we are as a population,” says Verduzco in the release. “But the way it’s done is you have to sample it, you have to do a PCR test and there’s a delay. Our selling point was to get real-time, continuous monitoring to see just how much of this virus is in the wastewater.”

The grant's co-principal investigators include Jonathan Silberg, the Stewart Memorial Professor of BioSciences and director of the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology Ph.D. program, and Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a professor of biosciences. Co-investigators also include Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Kirstin Matthews, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“These are engineered microbes we’re putting into wastewater, and even though they’re encapsulated, we want to know if there are concerns from health authorities and the general population,” Verduzco said. “Kirstin’s role is to look at the policy side, and also gauge public reaction and educate people about what it means when we talk about engineered bacteria.”

Rafael Verduzco is leading the research and development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at the Center for Vaccine Development. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's Hospital

2 Houston powerhouses deploy game-changing COVID-19 worldwide vaccine

a good shot

With the U.S. logging its highest single-day total of new COVID-19 cases (441,278 infections) and some 281, 808, 270 cases documented worldwide, new treatments worldwide are in major demand — especially in emerging nations.

To that end, Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine announced a new COVID vaccine ready to deploy in India and soon, other underserved countries.

Corbevax, which is dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine,” utilizes a traditional recombinant protein-based technology that will enable production at large scales, per a press release. That means the inoculation will be widely accessible to inoculate the global population.

This new vaccine was developed at Texas Children’s Hospital CVD and led by co-directors Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez — and in-licensed from BCM Ventures, Baylor College of Medicine’s integrated commercialization team, to Hyderabad-based vaccine and pharmaceutical company Biological E. Limited (BE).

After completing two Phase III clinical trials involving more than 3000 subjects the vaccine was found to be safe, well tolerated, and immunogenic. Current research shows Corbevax notably effective against the Ancestral-Wuhan strain and the globally dominant Delta variant, press materials note.

Safe, streamlined, low-cost vaccines for middle- to low-income countries are central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the two Houston organizations note. Indeed, without widespread vaccination of populations in the Global South, additional virus variants will arise, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries, per research.

“This announcement is an important first step in vaccinating the world and halting the pandemic,” said Hotez in a statement. “Our vaccine technology offers a path to address an unfolding humanitarian crisis, namely the vulnerability the low- and middle-income countries face against the delta variant. Widespread and global vaccination with our Texas Children’s-Baylor-BE vaccine would also forestall the emergence of new variants. We have previously missed that opportunity for the alpha and delta variant. Now is our chance to prevent a new global wave from what might follow.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Rice will start its spring semester online on January 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University declares start of spring semester online and vaccine requirements

new rules

With COVID-19 cases continuing to surge with the omicron variant and classes preparing to return from winter break, Rice University is sharing its plans for the spring semester, and that includes vaccine requirements.

Classes are still scheduled to start on January 10, 2022, however instruction will be online for the first two weeks, according to a message to the Rice community on December 28 from president David Leebron and provost Reggie DesRoches.

Anyone who can remain remote during that time is encouraged to do so.

The university says it plans to shift to a more endemic approach, meaning understanding that COVID will likely remain, so they'll be enforcing generally fewer restrictions and reducing certain public health measures like isolation and quarantine, provided people are fully vaccinated.

The online start will also allow time for everyone to receive booster shots, which is part of the university's new policy.

Here's what to know ahead of the start of the spring semester.

  • Effective Jan. 10, vaccine boosters will be required for all employees and students if it has been at least six months since your two-shot Pfizer or Moderna regime. If you took the 1-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you don't have to wait six months and should get a booster as soon as possible. The requirement applies to all employees and students who come to campus unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption. You'll be required to update your vaccination status with your booster information. A booster takes two weeks to be fully effective.
  • Classes with over 50 students must be held online.
  • Faculty teaching classes with 50 or fewer students have the option to hold their classes in person, but must make accommodations for students who do not attend in person, such as by recording classes.
  • Indoor gatherings, including classes, are limited to 50 people through Jan. 24.
  • Masks must be worn indoors at all times.
  • Students are strongly encouraged to delay returning to campus, including to undergraduate housing, until the weekend of Jan. 22-23.
  • Research activities can continue, and research facilities and services will remain open.
  • Staff should work remotely if they can until Jan. 24.

Rice says that it still plans to return to in-person on Jan. 24. The university plans to release more information later this week.

Other local colleges and universities have not yet announced protocol changes in response to rising COVID19 numbers, but officials stress, they are constantly reevaluating policies.---

This article was originally run by our news partner ABC13.

The new mega-site opens December 29. valentinrussanov/Getty Images

City of Houston announces massive new drive-through COVID testing site

new to hou

With COVID/omicron cases on the rise and Houston preparing for New Year’s Eve celebrations and travel, the City of Houston is expanding access to testing with a new drive-through mega site this week.

The site, which comes via the Houston Health Department and Curative, is located at Delmar Stadium, 2020 Mangum Rd., and opens 9 am Wednesday, December 29. Hours of operation run 8 am to 6 pm; the site promises to handle some 1,000 daily tests, according to a press release. Appointments are required at Curative.com or by calling 1-888-702-9042.

Importantly, the mega-site will be closed December 31 and January 1, 2022.

This means that at full capacity, the department’s network of Curative, United Memorial Medical Center, and multi-service center sites can provide approximately 27,000 daily tests.

Those interested can still visit HoustonHealth.org or call 832-393-4220 to find nearby free health department-affiliated testing sites and schedules.

Current Centers for Disease Control recommendations dictate that those who have symptoms and anyone who had close contact (within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period) with someone with confirmed COVID-19 should test for infection.

Testing and vaccination at health department-affiliated sites is free, and does not require proof of residency, citizenship, or insurance.

“As Omicron cases surge in Houston and across the country, I applaud people for getting tested before traveling, gathering with loved ones or returning to work,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement. “Testing and vaccination will help slow the virus spread and save lives. The increased demand for testing has led to longer than usual lines and wait times for some. The new site will help meet the demand and expand capacity for testing.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

Houston HR software startup rolls out platform at local hospital system

tapping into tech

More than 14,000 nurses at one of the largest nonprofit health care providers in Texas have access to a new skills and competency management software.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions has officially deployed its platform at Memorial Hermann Health System, consisting of 17 hospitals and more than 250 care delivery sites. The platform will streamline onboarding processes and increase transparency and accessibility for staff.

“Kahuna will enhance our clinical competency experience and fully aligns with our nursing strategy to optimize our processes, prioritize innovation and safety, and excel as a top provider of care and clinical advancement for clinicians,” Bryan Sisk, senior vice president and chief nursing executive for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

“Memorial Hermann is committed to the Houston community and helping to develop the next generation of nurses,” Sisk continues. “The Kahuna platform will help improve the transparency, autonomy and efficiency of our competency management and development processes for our nurses to better support them in their roles, while also ensuring we provide high-quality care for our patients.”

The rollout comes six months after the software-as-a-service company raised a $21 million series B round of funding.

“We are thrilled to work with Memorial Hermann as they enrich all aspects of their clinical competency management practices with Kahuna’s skills management software,” adds Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions. “This collaboration unites two Houston-based organizations and demonstrates a joint commitment to enhancing the standard of health care through digitized competency management in our Houston community and far beyond.”

Houston geothermal company grows Google partnership to provide power to Nevada

feeling lucky

Houston-based Fervo Energy’s geothermal energy soon will help power the world’s most popular website.

Through a first-of-its-kind proposal, Las Vegas-based public utility NV Energy would supply 115 megawatts of geothermal power generated by Fervo for Google’s two data centers in Nevada. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

In 2021, Google teamed up with Fervo to develop a pilot project for geothermal power in Nevada. Two years later, electricity from this project started flowing into the Nevada grid serving the two Google data centers. Google spent $600 million to build each of the centers, which are in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, and Storey County, which is east of Reno.

The proposed agreement with NV Energy would bring about 25 times more geothermal power capacity to the Nevada grid, Google says, and enable more around-the-clock clean power for the search engine company’s Nevada data centers.

A data center gobbles up 10 to 50 times the energy per square foot of floor space that a typical office building does, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“NV Energy and Google’s partnership to develop new solutions to bring clean … energy technology — like enhanced geothermal — onto Nevada’s grid at this scale is remarkable. This innovative proposal will not be paid for by NV Energy’s other customers but will help ensure all our customers benefit from cleaner, greener energy resources,” Doug Cannon, president and CEO of NV Energy, says in a Google blog post.

Utility regulators still must sign off on the proposal.

“If approved, it provides a blueprint for other utilities and large customers in Nevada to accelerate clean energy goals,” Cannon says.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.