Chances are that neither you nor your business have ever faced this approach to addressing a pandemic, as the current coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has been labeled by the World Health Organization. A pandemic requires all of us to significantly increase our response to the crisis, both at home and in the workplace.
Many more cases are expected in the United States over the next weeks and months. It is important to plan and implement for the worst possible scenarios and outcomes. Being prepared and taking deliberate actions to reduce transmission will reduce illness, protect others and save lives.
COVID-19 is highly contagious, especially in closed and poorly ventilated spaces. It is especially dangerous for older people, those with weak immune systems and people who have chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or who are recovering from another illness such as cancer treatment.
Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, headache, sore throat, and feeling very sick very quickly. COVID-19 can cause life-threatening complications if not treated – pneumonia, bronchitis, severe breathing problems, kidney failure or death.
COVID-19 should not be confused with the common cold. Both are respiratory (breathing) illnesses but are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 and influenza (flu) are much worse than a cold and the symptoms are more intense. Recovery takes longer and sometimes requires hospitalization.
This virus can spread before a person has symptoms. Symptoms can appear in two days to two weeks after exposure. Diagnosis is through a laboratory test of your throat or a nasal swab.
The virus spreads through coughing, sneezing or other respiratory droplets that move through the air. The potential for infection is highest if you come within six feet of an infected person. Because people can be carriers of COVID-19 before symptoms develop, experts recommend avoiding close contact with others – called “social distancing.”
However, that precaution presents a problem if you own a business that depends on customer traffic. Here’s how you can protect your customers, employees and yourself.
It is unlikely that a vaccine will be available this year, so the only prevention is to avoid exposure to COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
- Wash hands frequently. Provide hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for customers and post instructions: “Cover all hand surfaces with sanitizer and rub hands together until completely dry.” For employees, mandate frequent hand washing with soap and running water. Washing is preferable to hand sanitizer.
- Emphasize that employees should stay home when they’re sick, except to get medical attention. Anyone having trouble breathing or who is short of breath should contact their doctor for direction in seeking medical care or testing. Employees should remain home until they have no signs of fever or other symptoms for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medicines. Check temperature twice a day but not within 30 minutes of eating or drinking.
- Remind employees about respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, including cover all coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw it in the trash and immediately wash hands. Stock up on tissue for customers as well. If no tissue is available use your sleeve, not your hands. Wash the clothing as soon as possible. Never touch eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact (within six feet) when possible. Plan for spacing out of employees’ workspaces to allow for six feet. Thoughtfully think about how to protect and support those at greater risk from severe disease (older people and those who have weaker immune systems).
- Disinfect every surface that gets touched a lot – entry doors and handles, check-out area and cash registers, remote controls, phones, sneeze shields, restrooms, banisters, elevator buttons, tops of display counters and light switches. Pay attention to employee-only areas – lockers, kitchen areas, refrigerators, microwaves, vending machines, bathrooms, faucets, keyboards, time clocks, etc.
- Every business is different so take a fresh look at your most touched surfaces and disinfect them daily. Remind employees that everyone has a role in keeping commonly used surfaces clean. Use a solution of 4 teaspoons chlorine bleach (make sure it’s not expired) to 1 quart (4 cups) of water to wipe down all surfaces. Rubbing alcohol that is at least 70% alcohol will also disinfect. Soap and water will clean surfaces but should be done more frequently.
- Save the masks for health care workers. You don’t need one unless you are sick. If you are contagious, a mask will help keep your airborne droplets from infecting others, including family. If you are caring for a sick person, a mask is recommended. If you are not contagious, you don’t need a mask.
- Don’t travel except for emergencies. Most conferences and other public gatherings have been cancelled. Consider a travel ban for your employees. Look into remote-meeting apps and encourage employee contact by phone.
- Plan for flexibility in staffing. Employees may need to be home if they have no symptoms but have been exposed to or are caring for sick loved ones. Encourage them to stock up on essentials in case they’re quarantined – food, meds, medical supplies, pet food, etc. Consider accommodating and implementing a work-from-home policy.
- Notify employees if a fellow employee is confirmed to have COVID-19. Inform employers of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Access to health care is more important than ever. Business owners who do not currently offer health insurance to all employees should consider the benefits of helping your employees get access to well care and most importantly to treatment when they are ill.
This will be a difficult time. As an employer, strive to be cautious yet thoughtful about your approach in addressing this pandemic in the workplace, with your employees and customers.
Editor’s note: Dr. Chad Rodgers is vice president and chief medical officer with Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and is a practicing pediatrician.