What employers need to know about COVID-19

For many employers, COVID-19 has brought uncertainty and many questions around healthy and safety in the workplace.

While many businesses and employers have prepared contingency plans for disasters and unforeseen events, there is no business plan to confront a global pandemic.

With things changing so rapidly, which websites or resources can employees (and employers) rely on to access current information about the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Brill: The Centers for Disease Control website is an excellent, up-to-date resource that health care consumers can rely on. City and County Health Department websites are another good source of information, if a person is looking for current local information.

When can an employee who has been out with COVID-19 symptoms safely return to work?

Dr. Brill: Generally speaking, a non-test-based strategy based on CDC guidance for a person’s return to work include:

  • At least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery, defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
  • improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and,
  • At least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared

Are any special precautions needed when returning to work?

Dr. Brill:  Wearing a mask at work would be recommended, especially for those who have recovered from COVID-19 or for those who were not tested but had COVID-19 symptoms. It would be reasonable for employers with a large number of employees working in a confined area to consider having all of their employees wear masks at this time.

How can employers reduce the risk of COVID transmission among their employees right now, and in the long-term?

Dr. Brill: Employers and employees should be encouraged to follow these five “S” reminders”:

  1. Sanitize: Hand sanitizer and wipes should be available throughout the workplace. Employees should be instructed to use these items often throughout the day. Detailed instructions on how to properly clean and disinfect a workplace or work space can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html.
  2. Separate: This means spacing employees further apart, if at all possible, or creating physical barriers such as clear plastic shields, as seen at grocery checkouts. These see-through barriers can help maintain social distance and physical separation, while protecting employees from splashes and sprays – something that’s more important now than ever before.
  3. Stop ‘Shaking: At this point it’s vital to stop shaking hands and/or having close physical contact with co-workers and friends. Please keep your distance!
  4. Stop Sharing: This includes sharing food in the company breakroom or sharing telephones and other equipment in the workplace. If equipment must be shared among employees, it should be regularly sanitized between uses.
  5. Signage: Signage should be posted throughout the workplace to remind employees about the importance of proper hygiene, social distancing, and any other requirements, such as wearing a mask or disposable gloves. Signs can also remind employees of the symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if they start experiencing symptoms.

What role does (or will) increased diagnostic and antibody testing play in helping workers return safely to their jobs?

Dr. Brill: The CDC offers guidance on who should be tested, but decisions about testing are also at the discretion of state and local health departments and/or individual clinicians. The CDC closely monitors and regularly updates its own guidance on diagnostic testing. Currently there are three CDC “Priority Levels” for testing patients with suspected COVID-19 infection.

For antibody testing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a on April 8, 2020. It read in part:

Serological tests measure the amount of antibodies or proteins present in the blood when the body is responding to a specific infection, like COVID-19. In other words, the test detects the body’s immune response to the infection caused by the virus rather than detecting the virus itself. In the early days of an infection when the body’s immune response is still building, antibodies may not be detected. This limits the test’s effectiveness for diagnosing COVID-19 and why it should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose COVID-19.

Serological tests can play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 by helping health care professionals identify individuals who have overcome an infection in the past and have developed an immune response. In the future, this may potentially be used to help determine, together with other clinical data, that such individuals are no longer susceptible to infection and can return to work. In addition, these test results can aid in determining who may donate a part of their blood called convalescent plasma, which may serve as a possible treatment for those who are seriously ill from COVID-19.

What is contact tracing and why is it important?

Dr. Brill: The World Health Organization offers the following information about contact tracing: People in close contact with someone who is infected with the virus are at higher risk of becoming infected themselves and of potentially further infecting others. Closely watching these contacts after exposure to an infected person will help the contacts to get care and treatment, and will prevent further transmission of the virus.

This monitoring process is called contact tracing, and can be broken down into three basic steps:

  • Contact identification: Once someone is confirmed as infected with a virus, contacts are identified by asking about the person’s activities and the activities and roles of the people around them since onset of illness. Contacts can be anyone who has been in contact with an infected person: family members, work colleagues, friends, or health care providers.
  • Contact listing: All persons considered to have contact with the infected person should be listed as contacts. Efforts should be made to identify every listed contact and to inform them of their contact status, what it means, the actions that will follow, and the importance of receiving early care if they develop symptoms. Contacts should also be provided with information about prevention of the disease. In some cases, quarantine or isolation is required for high risk contacts, either at home, or in hospital.
  • Contact follow-up: Regular follow-up should be conducted with all contacts to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.

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