With vaccinations rolling out across the nation, there’s a chance you’ll never have an employee test positive for COVID. It’s nice to hope for the best, but as an employer, you also have a responsibility to prepare for the worst. If an employee tests positive for COVID, the protocol will differ depending on the professional context and local ordinances. Still, plenty of best practices remain the same across industries and locations. With established guidance from scientists, doctors, and experts in your toolbox, you can focus on keeping your employees safe, satisfied, and productive.
Express Your Support
Your head may start spinning as you question what to do if an employee tests positive for COVID, but start with empathy. Touch base with the employee to let them know you’re there to support them. Instruct them to contact their healthcare provider, and request a list of anyone they’ve been in contact with for the past two weeks. Remember, asymptomatic people can still spread COVID-19.
They should immediately self-quarantine for a minimum of 10 days, even if they don’t show symptoms of illness — but they shouldn’t be without your virtual support. Connecting over the phone or Zoom goes a long way.
Communicate Clearly, Efficiently, and Openly
Retrace the employee’s activities, and contact any colleagues who may have come in contact with the infected person in the days leading up to their positive diagnosis. Based on contact-tracing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, focus on anyone who may have been within 6 feet of the person for 15 minutes or more. Remember that viral spread may occur 48 hours before symptoms appear, if they appear at all.
Your goal is to provide enough information for employees to take necessary precautions without divulging personal information about the infected employee. Distribute the CDC’s guidance for community-related exposures, and offer information about potential contact, self-monitoring, and general precautions.
Once the employee who has tested positive and remaining staff are in the loop, the Society for Human Resource Management notes that it’s a good idea to contact local health authorities to help ensure community safety. Depending on your state, this may even be a legal requirement.
Address the Space
Ensure that any work areas that the COVID-positive employee may have used are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized following the CDC’s guidelines. The CDC also stipulates that cleaning should occur 24 hours after the positive diagnosis, and staff responsible for cleaning must be supplied with personal protective equipment.
If possible, vacate the spaces that the infected employee may have interacted within the days leading up to their diagnosis. Ideally, the space would remain unoccupied for at least seven days. The CDC notes that coronavirus has not been shown to survive on surfaces for longer than a week. Leaving the area well-ventilated also helps.
The Return and the Human Element
Throughout their illness and self-isolation, keep in touch with the employee who has tested positive.
It’s generally safe to end isolation 10 days after a positive test if the infected person never developed symptoms, or 10 days after the symptoms have improved. For severe cases, isolation may need to continue for closer to 20 days. The COVID-positive employee’s doctor should always have a say in their return to the workplace. Even if an employee tests positive for COVID, the CDC doesn’t officially advise employers to require a negative test before the employee can return to the workplace. However, a negative test may be the best way to ensure safety.
Once you’ve addressed the safety of your employees, check your state’s health and safety laws, as your business may be required to record the COVID case with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a work-related exposure. Paperwork aside, remember that humanity is at the heart of the whole process. As the Harvard Business Review’s Alisa Cohn puts it, “The message you send here will showcase how your company treats people, so it’s important to be transparent and calming.” Safety is paramount, but sensitivity and sympathy aren’t far behind.
Dan Ketchum has been an LA-based freelance writer for over a decade, with past work published by USA Today, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate. In the healthcare realm, he’s grateful to have collaborated with organizations such as LIVESTRONG, AZ Central Healthy Living, Eucerin, Jillian Michaels, Healthfully and Cetaphil.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - FAQs for Workplaces and Businesses
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Community-Related Exposures
Harvard Business Review - Your Employee Tested Positive for Covid-19. What Do You Do?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC/EPA Cleaning and Disinfecting Guidance
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Principles of Contact Tracing