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The COVID-19 Workforce: When Is It Safe to Return to Work?

COVID-19 Workforce

May 12, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a dramatic shift in the way all of us work, especially for essential workers and for those who now find themselves working remotely. With social distancing restrictions loosening but the pandemic still in full swing, many employers are wondering when to allow employees to return to work.

Common Questions on Returning to Work

An employee tested positive for COVID-19 but is feeling better. When can the employee return to work?

This is a question that comes up a lot. CDC guidelines state that any person who has tested positive for COVID-19 OR develops symptoms compatible with COVID-19 should remain in strict isolation (and stay home from work) until all of the following conditions have been met:

  1. There is no fever for over 72 hours (without the use of fever-lowering medications)
  2. Other symptoms have resolved
  3. At least 10 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared

Consensus on COVID-19 symptoms continues to evolve, but according to best available medical evidence, patients testing positive may have any combination of these symptoms: fever, dry cough, body aches, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath and/or sore throat.

While requiring employees to be tested before returning to work seems like the safest solution, the widespread shortage of testing limits healthcare systems’ ability to accommodate this need — we hope this will improve in the near future. The bottom line is that there are currently not enough tests available to retest individuals for the sole purpose of providing evidence to employers that they are cleared to safely return.

It’s important to remember that a single negative test today does not guarantee that the employee is cleared indefinitely. People can be exposed and contract the virus in any number of ways if they’re not using appropriate precautions. The Iowa Clinic and other healthcare systems in Greater Des Moines (DSM) are asking employers to use their best judgment, in accordance with CDC guidelines, to determine when they should allow employees to return to work.

While we at The Iowa Clinic would like to provide clear directives related to COVID-19 and workplace safety, we find ourselves on shifting sands as it relates to the scientific foundation of this disease. Ultimately, it’s important that employees be honest about their recovery process in order to ensure the safety of their colleagues. If they have been recovering from home, in isolation and meet the criteria above, the employer should use their best judgment to clear the employee to return. The Iowa Clinic has mandated that our patient-facing personnel remain quarantined a minimum of 14 days.

Consult the CDC and the Iowa Department of Public Health for more self-care isolation guidelines. Up-to-date information for patients and employers can be found here.

What if someone in the employee’s household has tested positive for COVID-19?

If a member of the employee’s household has tested positive, assume that everyone in the house is also positive. While tests can’t be administered to everyone due to the current testing shortage, most of those living in close proximity to one another would likely test positive. In this case, everyone should self-quarantine and notify employers of their situation. Once all members of the household are symptom-free and fever-free for 72 hours and at least 10 days have passed since the symptoms have first appeared, CDC guidelines indicate that they could be cleared to return to work or daycare.

When is it safe to go back to work?

With social distancing restrictions loosening in numerous parts of the state, many people are wondering when it’s safe to return to office buildings. Employees and employers should use their best judgment, in accordance with medical and state guidance, to determine when it is safe to return to work. Screening measures such as daily check-ins, temperature-taking (100.4 degrees has been the threshold) and face mask usage may be implemented. Consider spacing out cubicles or desks, utilizing virtual meetings or huddles, limiting employees in work areas, break rooms and conference rooms, staggering shifts and permitting teleworking. Be especially careful about break room and lunch room usage.

All employers should have established policies on sick leave and reiterate to employees that they MUST stay home if they are feeling unwell. Proper processes and protocols should be adhered to in order to provide a safe work environment. Employees should also be sure to practice good hygiene, including washing hands for a full 20 seconds, avoiding touching their face and mouth, covering their mouth and nose when they sneeze and avoiding shaking hands.

We’re all eager for a return to normalcy. But as we adjust to evolving guidelines on social distancing, we must remember the wellbeing of those around us and rely on our own use of precautions. If you have questions about protecting yourself from COVID-19, reach out to your primary care provider. For those who are not ready to leave home just yet, remember that virtual care is also a safe, accessible option to seek guidance from a physician.

As a leader in healthcare, The Iowa Clinic is taking active steps to keep people healthy, but each and every one of us has the power to make educated, careful choices and take precautions to continue to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The day will come when the pandemic is behind us. Our thoughtfulness and diligence will determine how we thrive in the interim.

You can count on The Partnership to continue to share accurate and fact-based updates as well. See more on COVID-19 here.

Dr. Kevin Cunningham

Dr. Kevin Cunningham is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Medical Informatics and Gerontology and has more than 35 years of experience. Born and raised in Iowa, he enjoys working to prepare The Iowa Clinic to provide the best healthcare in our community. Running with his "mature" persons running club is his singular avocation.