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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How Houston businesses can support employee mental health in 2023, according to expert

guest column

In 2023, it is imperative leaders keep the wellbeing of their workforce at the forefront of their minds.

According to an October 2022 publication from the McKinsey Health Institute, 59 percent of the global workforce report having at least one mental health challenge either now or in the past. These challenges not only threaten employee wellbeing but can also impact performance by a reduction in productivity.

Numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health. Nonetheless, employers can make a difference with a few key steps, such as properly training management to mitigate toxic behaviors, prioritizing inclusivity and providing mental health resources.

Management training

To start, leaders need to prepare their managers to set the tone for employees. Frontline managers can have a large influence on employee wellbeing through their daily interactions with their teams. Even if organizations offer a host of mental health benefits, employees might not take advantage if their managers do not buy in. There is no substitute for the genuine care and concern that a supportive manager offers their employees, and they can tell the difference when they are authentically cared for or not.

Although the vast majority of managers have good intentions toward their employees, managers also may hold themselves and their teams to high standards without realizing the impact on mental health. Managers should receive training in how to respect work-life balance, help employees prioritize their duties, and create and maintain a supportive, positive work environment. These things may not have been on the radar for management in the past, but it is now the norm to lead with the wellness of the whole person in mind.

Beyond helping employees balance their lives, managers also need support in balancing their own, particularly to avoid burnout. Employees and managers may both face pressure to perform, and leaders need to make sure mental health initiatives for junior employees do not simply transfer excessive workloads to their supervisors. To accomplish that, train managers in time- and stress-management techniques and keep the lines of communication open with the executive team. Staying in tune with the pulse of wellness at work requires open communication and the commitment to support work-life balance by all members of the organization.

Prioritize inclusivity

Since 2020, inclusivity has become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation about workplace culture. The impact of a discriminatory workplace on mental health can be profound. When employees experience or indirectly experience discrimination in the workplace, their overall wellbeing suffers, with engagement and satisfaction decreasing as well, according to a 2021 survey from Gallup. The good news is most workplaces already have policies in place to prevent and report discriminatory practices.

However, a truly inclusive workplace will go beyond anti-discrimination policies to create an affirmative environment where employees can fully embrace their identities. Steps to promote inclusivity include celebrating holidays of various cultures, creating opportunities for employees to discuss their heritage and traditions, organizing relationship-focused exercises and offering educational opportunities in the workplace. To promote unity in the workplace, leaders should take care to discourage the formation of cliques and ensure all employees feel welcomed and not judged or mistreated by coworkers. Valuing diversity and honoring the individual drives the culture of tolerance and acceptance, which promotes a harmonious and productive work environment and team.

Provide mental health resources

To promote mental health and wellness, employees need access to the right resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources. In many cases, employees with the biggest mental health challenges may also face the most obstacles in receiving care. For employers offering health care benefits, employees may need training on how to find mental health practitioners in their area. What is more, employees accustomed to inconvenient appointment times or long wait lists for therapists may benefit from learning about online therapy platforms, which can offer care sooner and outside of typical work hours.

Many employers also choose to offer an employee assistance plan, or EAP, which can offer further mental health programs, free of charge. Despite their relevance to employees in need, EAPs are often overlooked and underutilized, making it even more necessary for managers or HR to proactively reach out to employees and educate them about their EAP benefits.

For organizations without the budget to provide health care benefits or EAPs, their leadership should investigate free or low-cost mental health resources in their region. In many cases, local government will provide free access or subsidies for mental health care. Nonprofit organizations may also offer free programs for those meeting eligibility requirements.

Employers should keep in mind employees may feel afraid to use mental health benefits for fear of stigma. While managers should be careful not to intrude on employees’ personal lives, managers can still gently offer caring support to employees who show signs of struggling with mental health, including chronic tardiness, absenteeism, low mood and a sudden change in personality or work performance. The ability to know if a behavior is out of the norm for an employee, the manager needs to have built a relationship with them and to care enough to notice the change.

As employees continue to face mental health challenges in their personal lives, employers can be part of the solution by educating managers, emphasizing inclusivity and offering mental health resources and support. Being a caring human being goes a long way, even at work.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from drones to energy tech— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Madison Long, co-founder and CEO of Clutch

Madison Long joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Clutch's recent national launch and the role Houston played in the company's success. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch — founded by CEO Madison Long and CTO Simone May — celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence." Read more and listen to the episode.

Ty Audronis, co-founder of Tempest Droneworks

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis, fueled by wanting to move the needle on wildfire prevention, wanted to upgrade existing processes with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Read more.

Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer and head of Houston incubator of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is now the chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs, as well as continuing to be head of the Houston incubator. Image courtesy of Greentown

Greentown Labs named a new member to its C-suite. Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate. Read more.

Houston Tech Rodeo drops schedule for 2023 events

ready to rodeo

Houston Tech Rodeo returns this year — and the lineup of panels and networking opportunities has been released online.

The four-day summit was originally introduced in 2020 by Houston Exponential to shine a spotlight on Houston's tech and startup ecosystem. Last year, HX changed ownership, converted into a for-profit business, and named Natara Branch as the new CEO. With the new ownership comes a new era for HTR — complete with AI-generated media, a goal for a record-breaking finale event with CodeLaunch, and more.

"The biggest theme of Tech Rodeo this year is around being aware," Branch tells InnovationMap. "We want entrepreneurs to know what resources are out there, that they are supported, and that there are all these entities out here that are conducting themselves in a manner that is really centered around supporting them."

"We hope that when entrepreneurs and startups walk away from Tech Rodeo this year, it will really feel to them like there's more momentum in this city than there has been in the past so that we can be a top-tier startup destination," she continues.

This year's schedule is divided across a few themes and all events are being held in the Houston Innovation District in Midtown.

  • Monday, February 27: Space Tech at the Ion
  • Tuesday, February 28: Global Mindset at HCC Central Campus and Energy Tech at Greentown Labs
  • Wednesday, March 1: Bio Economy at TMC Innovation and Emerging Tech at The Cannon - Downtown
  • Thursday, March 2: Townhall and CodeLaunch Finale at Sesh Coworking and 713 Music Hall
The week's events will attract founders, investors, startup development organizers, and more. When HTR launched its free tickets online, Branch says they received around 800 registrants in one day. At the center of everything HX does is the Houston founders, Branch says.
"It was supper important to us to make sure that entrepreneurs have access," she says. "It's free to entrepreneurs — they are number one in who should attend."

More information and registration is available at houstontechrodeo.com.

Head to houstontechrodeo.com for up-to-date schedule information. Graphic courtesy of HX