Six Steps for Responding to COVID-positive or COVID-exposed Employees

Almost every day I get a call from a different employer asking how their company should respond to the news that an employee is either symptomatic, COVID-positive or has had direct exposure to a person who has the virus. Now that the coronavirus is spreading through community contact rather than just in certain workplace hot spots like the meatpacking plants, many more employers are experiencing the workplace dilemmas caused by ill or exposed employees.

What are the recommended steps that a company needs to take to respond well to that employee and to keep its other employees safe?

  1. If the employee has tested positive even without symptoms, then that employee must be quarantined at home for at least 10 days from the date of the positive test, according to the newest CDC guidance released on July 22, 2020. Quarantine means that the employee needs to be instructed to stay in the home without venturing out for any reason, needs to wear a mask around family members and to try to isolate in a separate room and bathroom from family members to prevent them from also getting sick.
  2. If the employee has any symptoms but hasn’t been tested, that employee should be instructed not to come to work and to get a COVID test as quickly as possible. Many employees will need help figuring out how and where to get a test. The best place to get a test keeps changing in Amarillo based on price, time to get results and whether the test is a molecular, antigen or antibody test. Antibody tests cannot be used to diagnose an active infection and should be avoided to resolve leave from work issues. Antigen tests, being offered as rapid result tests at many clinics and freestanding ER’s around town, have a higher chance of missing an active infection, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Plus providers are charging between $120.00 and $350.00 for these tests unless there is insurance available (a fact that the employer should determine before sending an employee to be tested there). But the more reliable molecular (deep nasal swab) tests offered free by Amarillo Public Health often take days to return the results. Since the employee will not be able to be present at the worksite while test results are pending, you as the employer may need to help the employee think through where to get tested. You may also want to have talked to your group health insurance provider so you can answer the employee’s questions about the cost of testing. Many employees will appreciate this kind of assistance.
  3. No employee should be in the workplace while waiting on test results. That employee should be quarantining at home under the assumption that the employee may have the virus until a negative test result is returned.
  4. If the employee with or without symptoms receives a negative test result, that employee can return to work (assuming that the employee is not too sick to work with an illness other than COVID-19).
  5. If the employee with symptoms tests positive for the coronavirus, or doesn’t get tested, then the employee can return to work no earlier than 10 days after symptoms began and resolution of fever for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications, and with improvement of other symptoms. This 10-day rule applies to mild or moderate cases. The CDC acknowledges in its July 22 guidance that there are certain people who are more severely ill who may still be contagious beyond the 10 days. Consultation with Public Health or the employee’s healthcare provider may be necessary to determine when it is safe to return an employee who has been severely ill to work. The CDC no longer recommends that the employee who had symptoms or tested positive get two negative test results before returning to work. Employers are now supposed to be able to rely on the time that has passed, resolution of symptoms and the severity of the illness to determine if the employee can return to work.
  6. If an employee has had recent direct exposure in the last 10 days to a person who is COVID-positive, that employee should notify you immediately, stay away from the office, and get a test. Obviously, this notification could go the other direction: you as the employer will need to notify any employee who has been directly exposed to another employee whom you know is COVID-positive or experiencing symptoms indicative of COVID-19. “Direct exposure” means physical contact (handshake, kiss, hug, etc.), being in the same household, being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes (such as in a car, office, meeting, at a party or shared a table during a meal), or direct exposure to respiratory secretions (being coughed or sneezed upon). Once the employee is tested or has developed symptoms, you can treat that employee as outlined above. If testing is just not practical because of untimely results or expense, then you will have to send any exposed employee home until at least 10 days have passed since the most recent direct exposure.

At the current time, here is the list of symptoms that the CDC is warning could be indicative of COVID-19:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Not every person will experience every symptom. According to the CDC, people with COVID-19 have a wide range of symptoms that appear within 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. But the CDC is still recommending a 10-day time frame for the return to work guidelines.

Don’t forget that an employee who has contracted COVID-19 or is quarantined by the employer, the health authority or a healthcare provider must be paid for at least two weeks of emergency paid sick leave pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”). You as the employer can get reimbursed for that pay through a payroll tax credit (assuming you are not using Paycheck Protection Act funds to pay that employee during that sick leave; double-dipping into federal funds is prohibited).

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