How to handle a positive COVID-19 test
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How to handle a positive COVID-19 test

Follow these steps if one of your employees tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

May 1, 2020

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises each day, more and more business owners are finding out an employee has tested positive for the new coronavirus. Don’t let this possibility catch you flat-footed and wondering what to do.

Jonathan Theders, CEO of RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders, a Cincinnati-based agency that serves 4,000 customers nationwide, said it’s the employer’s responsibility to respond swiftly to a positive test. The company’s response should have two goals: protect the health of its employees while preserving the anonymity of the affected employee.

Here are a few steps to take if you find out an employee has COVID-19.

First, don’t freak out. When an employee notifies you that he or she is sick with COVID-19, respond calmly and empathetically. It can be easy to overreact, but you need to ensure that the infected employee is treated with compassion.

Reassure the employee that their identity will remain confidential. Be sure to help them coordinate taking leave or paid time off until they’ve recovered. When in doubt over how to handle that, defer to your company policy.

"The employer has the challenge of how they are going to address that from a compensation standpoint," Theders said. "Time off, sick leave, none: I’ll oftentimes go to whatever’s in their handbook."

Next, you need to ask the employee who they have been in contact with over the last two weeks. Obtaining this information is essential so that you can directly notify customers and other employees that they may have been directly exposed to COVID-19.

Notifying employees and customers

Without disclosing the identity of the infected employee, you need to notify their co-workers, customers and the rest of the company.

Theders said that it is important to respect the privacy of the employee throughout this situation.

"You’re not saying 'John has coronavirus!'" he said. "Will people figure it out when John isn’t at work? Probably. But that is not something you broadcast."

He also advises connecting with a labor attorney or HR risk consultant, who can dictate any particulars specific to your state or jurisdiction.

When notifying co-workers or customers, be sure to remain calm. Let them know that someone they have been in contact with or has been in their physical work area has tested positive for COVID-19.

"Because of their right to privacy you don’t say the person’s name, but you’d say ‘we have an employee who developed coronavirus, we have been told that you have had interaction with them, we’re going to ask you to self-quarantine for 14 days,'" Theders said.

Jonathan Theders

Along with recommending self-quarantine, ask them to monitor themselves for the symptoms of COVID-19. If feasible, allow eligible employees to work from home during this time.

Be sure to notify the rest of the company by email or letter that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, even if they haven’t had any interaction with the affected individual. Remember to keep the employee’s identity protected and be transparent about your response. The communication should include what steps your company will be taking to protect the health of other employees. If you plan on having employees work from home for the next 14 days or closing the office, this information should be disclosed in the communication.

A clean environment

After notifying the rest of the company and your customers about the positive test, you must ensure a safe work environment for your other employees.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 can stay on hard surfaces for up to 12 hours. This creates a risk of transmission. You may want to consider closing the office for a few days after the positive test was discovered until a thorough cleaning can take place. All surfaces that the infected employee may have touched should be disinfected, including commonly touched surfaces, like countertops, cabinets, doorknobs, handles and chairs.

Editor’s note: Here’s a list of EPA-approved disinfectants for COVID-19.

When you do open your office again, make sure you’re giving employees the tools they need to feel safe at work.

Provide hand sanitizer. Encourage hygiene however you can. Wipe down surfaces multiple times. Take worker temperatures before and after shifts.

"Have a guideline in place," Theders said. "If your temperature is 99 degrees or greater, you have to go home."

Also, don’t permit people with fevers or coughs to come to work. Be strict; no exceptions.

"Tell your employees, 'these are the symptoms. If you have any of these, we need you to stay home.'"

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