As states begin the process of vaccinating millions of health care workers, essential workers, high-risk patients and others, many people who are temporarily working from home may wonder when they can return to the office safely.
Last summer, many companies indicated that they had no intention of returning to the office before summer 2021, but with the situation still very fluid, timelines remain subject to change.
"The vaccine has proven effective against COVID-19 infections," says Dr. Kathy Head, associate director of occupational medicine with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "However, we will wait for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other medical recommendations regarding when the use of masks, social distancing and other precautions taken to prevent the spread of the virus will be lifted. It is anticipated that with the use of vaccine, return to work at a workplace environment will follow."
When employees do return to their regular workplaces, there is much for employers and employees to keep top of mind.
"The most important factor in bringing an employee back to work is safety for all employees in the workplace," says Dr. Head. "An employer should make sure that the workplace can accommodate the CDC recommendations for work distancing of at least 6 feet apart, continuous masking and eye protection when people are not in individual closed rooms, and no prolonged time together."
However, Dr. Head is quick to point out that things are changing on a week-to-week, sometimes day-to-day basis. "While current COVID-19 precautions may change once everyone is vaccinated, the timeframe of this is not clear and we await further recommendations from the CDC and other government entities."
If an employee shows symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, sore throat, or loss of taste or smell, they should immediately contact their supervisor.
"The first thing that must happen is that the person with symptoms should leave work and contact their primary care physician," says Dr. Head. "The employer should then discuss the situation with all employees to determine who may have been exposed. If anyone has been exposed or potentially exposed, that person should be sent for an exposure evaluation by a trained provider, who will direct appropriate care, including advice to the exposed employee and others in the workplace."
Sharp Rees-Stealy Occupational Medicine follows the CDC and California Department of Public Health (CDPH) return-to-work guidelines. The symptom-based strategy is people can return to work when at least 10 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared, and they have recovered for at least one day or 24 hours - meaning they have been fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medication and are showing improvements in respiratory symptoms.
Dr. Head also recommends employers consult recent laws regarding COVID-19 and workers' compensation. "A recent safety order issued by Cal/OSHA (California Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires employers to test employees exposed to COVID-19 at the workplace in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, defined as three or more cases within 14 days," she says.
Employers are encouraged to talk with their workers' compensation carrier for the latest information on this important topic. For more information, visit the Cal/OSHA website.
To learn more about Sharp Rees-Stealy's occupational services, visit Occupational Health online.