By
Dr. Scott Conard, Holmes Murphy Chief Medical Officer

A lot of companies around the U.S. are starting to head back into the office (or at least considering it), but this is proving to be challenging. COVID-19 is a dangerous, insidious, and difficult-to-detect disease, guidelines on workplace safety and confidentiality are not entirely clear, and the liability (should an employee become ill after returning to work) leaves many companies unsure of the best path forward. So, perhaps, a “clinic approach” should be strongly considered.

This approach has 5 factors.

1. Environmental Precautions

To begin, every strategy will still require social distancing, aggressive hygienic measures (hand washing, cleaning the workspace, and so forth), and personal protective gear where available for the foreseeable future. Even a person who has had COVID-19 and gotten well (IgG antibody positive) will have to follow these guidelines. This step is not to prevent them from getting the disease, but rather to prevent them from carrying the virus from one person to another by carrying the virus on their hands, clothing, or by depositing the virus onto door knobs, shared spaces (break rooms, elevators, meeting rooms), elevator buttons, etc.

2. Employee Health Status

Clinically, the health status of the individual must be assessed. Employees must be placed into at least four categories:

  • Low risk, not exposing high-risk close contacts — What this means is that the employee is low risk and also doesn’t have friends or family with whom they’re living or supporting who are high risk.
  • Low risk, exposing high-risk close contacts — An example of this type of employee would be one who is low risk; however, they live or are in close contact with a spouse with type 1 or 2 diabetes, an elderly parent or grandparent, or someone who is on chemotherapy, etc.
  • High risk — This group would contain employees who are over 65, those with chronic disease(s), or those who are immunocompromised from cancer or a specialty medication like Remicade, Humira, or Embrel.
  • Employees with COVID-19 infection or exposure — This categorization of employees is somewhat self-explanatory. This would be an employee, whether active or historical, who had a test that came back positive or was presumed to have had (does have) COVID-19. In this case, careful reintroduction into the workplace is necessary.

Given the rapidly changing understanding of best practices and the availability of testing, many companies are relying on third-party vendors to manage this dynamic situation and guide employees through the process of returning to the workplace in a medically, socially, and culturally safe and well-orchestrated effort. How to do this requires careful consideration of ADA, EEOC, and other regulations, so make sure to make it a team effort when considering who you want to bring back and when.

3. Work Environment

The work environment (ventilation, space, ingress and egress, number of employees per work area, shared spaces like kitchens, bathrooms and meeting rooms, transportation requirements, and the necessity of specific vital workers and/or functions to be performed) must be assessed to determine the safety and rate of return to work.

4. Geographical Concerns

The prevalence of COVID-19 in the geography must also be considered. A rate of 2/10,000 residents is a guideline that some are using to determine how assertively they need to request employees wear personal protective gear and/or the aggressiveness of bringing employees back to work.

5. Testing Availability

Finally, the use of testing as it becomes available (PCR that detects the actual virus itself, and antibody testing which determines the immune system response) will become important as these tests become more readily available.

Cost, convenience, accuracy, and logistics will all play into when, whether, and which test will be performed and how it changes the decision of whom to bring back to work when.

Be on the Lookout…

In this blog, I reviewed the health portion of the return-to-the-office equation and touched briefly on the workplace environment. Tune in Monday or subscribe to our blog, as Kari Cooling will take a look a closer look at that and factors you’ll need to take into consideration in your strategy.

Additionally, we recently hosted a webinar called “Managing Risk: What Employers Need to Know as Employees Return to Work.” Feel free to check it out!