In a welcome bit of good news, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reduced its national forecast predictions, reducing the expected number of cases of COVID-19. However, the bad news is that this still translates to between 186,000 and 538,000 new cases nationwide before Labor Day. That means the possibility of someone contracting the virus in your place of work remains relatively high.

Some workplaces, particularly those in which workers must do their jobs in more compact spaces, are at higher risk of an outbreak. However, every company needs to look at its policies, procedures and practices to ensure it contains any possible outbreak quickly and effectively.

Here is what to do if one of your employees shows COVID-19 symptoms.

Have a Plan

Of course, having an established protocol in place for all employees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms is your best approach. Supervisors and employees should all be made aware of this policy and since clear communication in stressful situations is crucial, consider supplying written copies of your plan to all supervisors and employees so they can revisit the information whenever they need to refresh themselves on it.

Train your supervisors in how to respond when they suspect an employee is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Emphasize their responsibilities to your company, the employee and applicable labor laws such as those protecting workers’ privacy and health information.

Additionally, educate your workers with necessary infection control information and training. This training should include social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and basic housekeeping, cleaning and sanitization procedures. Not only will this help you protect your workers from infection, but it can also help contain any possible outbreak. To ensure everyone is on the same page, the CDC recommends that you provide this information via a language and literacy level your workers understand.

Spend additional time training your supervisors and managerial staff on the protocols for dealing directly with workers who are exhibiting symptoms. This training should include information on symptom identification, company policy and confidentiality.

Isolate

Workers who arrive at work showing suspected COVID-19 symptoms or who begin to exhibit them during their shift should be isolated from other workers and the public. It’s critical, however, to be mindful of not overreacting or unnecessarily embarrassing your worker or exposing their private information. Also, the last thing you want to do is create a climate of fear or panic in your workplace.

You are well within your rights, as an employer, to send any employee home who exhibits signs of any illness. Be sure this is done in private by a supervisor and protect your worker’s privacy as much as reasonably possible. Consider having a procedure in place for the safe transportation of any ill workers from the workplace to either their home or a health care center, in case their normal methods of transportation involve public transportation, carpooling, or any other measures that may jeopardize someone else's health.

Additional immediate precautions should be taken as well. These include:

  • Closing off any areas where the ill worker may have been
  • Cleaning and disinfecting the worker’s workspace after 24 hours, as this will minimize the risk of exposure to droplets for your cleaning staff
  • Opening doors and windows in the workspace to increase air circulation if allowable under other regulations (fire, food safety, etc.)

Investigate

Once you have identified the workspaces at risk, collect information about who the symptomatic worker may have been in contact with. This information should go back to at least two days before they were exhibiting symptoms. Trace the worker’s steps and contacts via work schedules, logs and interviews with supervisors.

You will also want to collect information about the worker’s hours and times when they may have been in contact with the public, as public health authorities may require this information for contact tracing.

Inform

Once a worker is confirmed to be infected, inform any workers they may have been in contact with of their possible exposure. Ensure your supervisors understand that, despite the gravity of the pandemic, they are still bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to maintain confidentiality.

Any workers who had close exposure — within six feet for longer than fifteen minutes — should be sent home to self-isolate for 14 days. Other workers in the area should practice social distancing and other preventative measures to avoid infecting others.

Provide your workers with copies of the CDC guidelines for exposure and remember that health care workers and critical infrastructure workers are governed by separate guidelines concerning both symptoms and exposure. Critical infrastructure businesses also have an obligation to continue normal business operations, even in the event of of an exposure or outbreak, while ensuring the protection of their workers and the public.

Take Action

In most cases, there will be no need for you to shut down your facility if a worker begins to show symptoms.

If the ill worker was in your facility within the last seven days, follow appropriate isolation, closure and cleaning procedures. If it has been over seven days since the symptomatic worker has been in your facility, you don’t need to take these additional precautions. However, you should still ascertain which of your other employees may have had contact with the worker and will need to isolate or take extra precautions.

Discovering an employee has COVID-19 symptoms can be frightening for everyone involved. However, dealing with it calmly and professionally, protecting privacy while ensuring safety, can mitigate much of this fear and keep your company and employees at work safely.