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Let's leave the COVID-19 pandemic behind with a better and healthier culture

News of Oregon government and health leaders planning to lift the indoor mask mandate has prompted renewed hope that the COVID pandemic will ultimately transition to an endemic stage, similar to the flu or common cold – something that continues to emerge, but in a less dangerous and more manageable and predictable way.

Hopefully, this is where our world is headed and the days of masking requirements, social distancing and gathering limitations is finally transitioning from current reality to a moment in our recent history.

Whenever that time finally comes, our community, our state and our country will move forward with some new models for how we work, educate and play. We will move into a new normal where culture in the workplace, the school buildings and all other public venues have changed – or should change.

Much has already been written in the media about how COVID changed our views on the ability to work from home, particularly when sickness strikes. For far too long, our society has labored under the belief that people should continue to work hard and keep showing up to do their job when they catch a bug. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat and even fevers were treated as challenges to the workday but not as a reason to stay home. Staying home carried the stigma of being lazy, unreliable or even weak – which never should have been the case for a couple important reasons.

One, people who show up sick to work risk spreading the illness to their colleagues, anything from a common cold to influenza or a vicious stomach virus. It's a foolish decision that, at best, forces someone to work at less than full strength, which could compromise productivity. At worst, it could make other people ill and harm the business that much more – not to mention that some people handle viruses worse than others and could risk greater complications.

The other problem is the person who feels compelled to give up rest and recovery to work through illness and avoid letting down colleagues and employers runs the risk of staying sick even longer, which further hurts productivity and could spur other health challenges.

The same changes should happen at the schools. Kids should not be sent to school with sore throats, upset bellies or frankly anything short of a mild case of the sniffles. As teachers know all too well, sicknesses spread like wildfire in the schools, afflicting students and educators alike. When the H1N1 flu struck in 2009, the schools at one point experienced an absenteeism rate of more than 30%. Could that have been avoided if sick students just stayed home?

Workers and students live in a new environment where staying home does not necessarily put people behind on their work or their studies. Few of us had heard of Zoom or Teams prior to COVID. Now, virtual meetings have not only helped businesses and schools move forward, they are embraced in certain settings. As many news articles have recently pointed out, our society has learned that you can work from home. You can learn from home. Sure, person-to-person contact will always have value, but it is no longer viewed as the only option.

The other cultural shift that could happen and definitely should happen is a greater emphasis on hygiene and a heightened awareness of our ability to spread germs to others. We should wash our hands more often, especially when we are sick. When we get sick, we should make a more concerted effort to stay home – and if you must go out in public, for meds or groceries or other essentials, mask up and protect those around you. Sure, right now we are all tired of wearing them all the time and will rejoice when they are no longer required everywhere we go, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be willing to wear one if we are contagious but have to visit the pharmacy, grocery store or health care clinic.

The pandemic may very well be headed for endemic status – fingers crossed. But if it is, let's leave it behind with a better and healthier culture. It would be a shame to suffer so much and learn nothing from it.

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