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An employee of ours has tested positive for COVID-19. What should we do?

The infected employee should be sent home until released by their medical provider or local health provider. You should send home all employees who worked closely with that employee to ensure the infection does not spread. Before the infected employee departs, ask them to identify all individuals who worked in close proximity (within six feet) for a prolonged period of time (10 minutes or more to 30 minutes or more) with them during the 48-hour period before the onset of symptoms to ensure you have a full list of those who should be sent home. When sending the employees home, do not identify by name the infected employee or you could risk a violation of confidentiality laws. If you work in a shared office building or area, you should inform building management so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary. The CDC provides that the employees who worked closely to the infected worker should be instructed to proceed based on the CDC Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure. This includes staying home until 14 days after last exposure, maintaining social distance from others, and self-monitoring for symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath).

How long should the employees who worked near the employee stay at home? Those employees should first consult and follow the advice of their healthcare providers or public health department regarding the length of time to stay at home. The CDC recommends that those who have had close contact for a prolonged period of time with an infected person should remain at home for 14 days after last exposure. If they develop symptoms, they should remain home for at least seven days from the initial onset of the symptoms, three days without a fever (achieved without medication), and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath).

The CDC has released relaxed guidelines for critical infrastructure workers, as previously defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19. Under the relaxed guidelines, critical infrastructure workers potentially exposed to COVID-19 may continue to work following exposure provided they remain symptom-free and employers implement additional precautions to protect the employee and the community:

  • For Employers:

    • Measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to permitting the worker resuming work, ideally, before they enter the facility.

    • Clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment routinely.

  • For Employees:

    • Self-monitor under the supervision of their employer’s occupational health program.

    • Wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after last exposure.

    • Maintain a six-foot distance from others and otherwise observe social distancing in the workplace as work duties permit.

Critical infrastructure employees who become sick during the work day should continue to be sent home immediately. You should notify those who had contact with the ill employee while be employee had symptoms, and two days prior to the symptoms appearing. You should then implement additional precautions for those employees as described above.

The CDC also provides the following recommendations for most non-healthcare businesses that have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases:

  • It is recommended to close off areas used by the ill persons and wait as long as practical before beginning cleaning and disinfection to minimize potential for exposure to respiratory droplets. Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area. If possible, wait up to 24 hours before beginning cleaning and disinfection.

  • Cleaning staff should clean and disinfect all areas (e.g., offices, bathrooms, and common areas) used by the ill persons, focusing especially on frequently touched surfaces.

  • To clean and disinfect:

    • If surfaces are dirty, they should be cleaned using a detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection (Note: “cleaning” will remove some germs, but “disinfection” is also necessary).

    • For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.

    • Diluted household bleach solutions can be used if appropriate for the surface. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. Unexpired household bleach will be effective against coronaviruses when properly diluted.

    • Cleaning staff should wear disposable gloves and gowns for all tasks in the cleaning process, including handling trash.

    • Gloves and gowns should be compatible with the disinfectant products being used.

    • Additional PPE might be required based on the cleaning/disinfectant products being used and whether there is a risk of splash. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding other protective measures recommended on the product labeling.

    • Gloves and gowns should be removed carefully to avoid contamination of the wearer and the surrounding area. Be sure to clean hands after removing gloves.

    • Employers should develop policies for worker protection and provide training to all cleaning staff on site prior to providing cleaning tasks. Training should include when to use PPE, what PPE is necessary, how to properly don (put on), use, and doff (take off) PPE, and how to properly dispose of PPE. 

    • If you require gloves or masks or other PPE, prepare a simple half-page Job Safety Analysis (JSA): list the hazards and the PPE (gloves, masks, etc., as needed), and the person who drafts the JSA should sign and date it.

If employers are using cleaners other than household cleaners with more frequency than an employee would use at home, employers must also ensure workers are trained on the hazards of the cleaning chemicals used in the workplace and maintain a written program in accordance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200). Simply download the manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and share with employees as needed, and make sure the cleaners used are on your list of workplace chemicals used as part of the Hazard Communication Program (which almost all employers maintain).

UPDATED ANSWER (April 9, 2020)
One of our employees has a suspected but unconfirmed case of COVID-19. What should we do?

Take the same precautions as noted above. Treat the situation as if the suspected case is a confirmed case for purposes of sending home potentially infected employees. Communicate with your affected workers to let them know that the employee has not tested positive for the virus but has been exhibiting symptoms that lead you to believe a positive diagnosis is possible.

As discussed above, critical infrastructure workers who have been potentially exposed may continue to work if they are asymptomatic and the additional precautions are implemented.

UPDATED ANSWER (March 30, 2020)
How can we distinguish between a “suspected but unconfirmed” case of COVID-19 and a typical illness? 

There is no easy way for you to make this determination, but you should let logic guide your thinking. The kinds of indicators that will lead you to conclude an illness could be a suspected but unconfirmed case of COVID-19 include whether that employee has a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case in their household or similar facts, like whether they traveled to a restricted area that is under a Level 2, 3, or 4 Travel Advisory according to the U.S. State Department, whether that employee was exposed to someone who traveled to one of those areas, etc. You should err on the side of caution but not panic.

The EEOC has confirmed that you can inquire into an employee’s symptoms, even if such questions are disability-related, as you would be considered to have a “reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the severe form of pandemic influenza poses a direct threat.” Inquiries into an employee’s symptoms should attempt to distinguish the symptoms of COVID-19 from the common cold and the seasonal flu. This should include inquiries into whether an employee is experiencing:

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Cough

  • Sneezing

  • Aches and pains

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Sore throat

  • Diarrhea

  • Headaches

  • Shortness of breath

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and a dry cough. This helpful chart can help you and your employees distinguish between the COVID-19 coronavirus, the seasonal flu, or a common cold.

It is important to remember that you must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.

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