Managing Your Practice

What to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19


 

An increasingly common question I’m receiving is: What should private practices do if a patient or employee tests positive for COVID-19, or has been exposed to someone who has?

As always, it depends, but here is some general advice: The specifics will vary depending on state/local laws, or your particular situation.

First, you need to determine the level of exposure, and whether it requires action. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, actionable exposure occurs 2 days prior to the onset of illness, and lasts 10 days after onset.

If action is required, you’ll need to determine who needs to quarantine and who needs to be tested. Vaccinated employees who have been exposed to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 are not required to quarantine or be tested if they are fully vaccinated and have remained asymptomatic since the exposure. Those employees should, however, follow all the usual precautions (masks, social distancing, handwashing, etc.) with increased diligence. Remind them that no vaccine is 100% effective, and suggest they self-monitor for symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath, etc.)

All other exposed employees should be tested. A negative test means an individual was not infected at the time the sample was collected, but that does not mean an individual will not get sick later. Some providers are retesting on days 5 and 7 post exposure.

Some experts advise that you monitor exposed employees (vaccinated or not) yourself, with daily temperature readings and inquiries regarding symptoms, and perhaps a daily pulse oximetry check, for 14 days following exposure. Document these screenings in writing. Anyone testing positive or developing a fever or other symptoms should, of course, be sent home and seek medical treatment as necessary.

Employees who develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 should remain out of work until all CDC “return-to-work” criteria are met. At this writing, the basic criteria include:

  • At least 10 days pass after symptoms first appeared
  • At least 24 hours pass after last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications
  • Cough, shortness of breath, and any other symptoms improve

Anyone who is significantly immunocompromised may need more time at home, and probably consultation with an infectious disease specialist.

Your facility should be thoroughly cleaned after the exposure. Close off all areas used by the sick individual, and clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, doorknobs, bathrooms, common areas, and shared electronic equipment. Of course, the cleaners should wear gowns, gloves, masks, and goggles. Some practices are hiring cleaning crews to professionally disinfect their offices. Once the area has been disinfected, it can be reopened for use. Workers without close contact with the person who is sick can return to work immediately after disinfection.

If the potential infected area is widespread and cannot be isolated to a room or rooms where doors can be shut, it may be prudent to temporarily close your office, send staff home, and divert patients to other locations if they cannot be rescheduled. Once your facility is cleaned and disinfected and staff have been cleared, your office may reopen.

Use enhanced precautions for any staff or patients who are immunocompromised, or otherwise fall into the high-risk category, to keep them out of the path of potential exposure areas and allow them to self-quarantine if they desire.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

You should continue following existing leave policies (paid time off, vacation, sick, short-term disability, leave of absence, Family and Medical Leave Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act). If the employee was exposed at work, contact your workers’ compensation carrier regarding lost wages. Unless your state laws specify otherwise, you are under no obligation to pay beyond your policies, but you may do so if you choose.

Of course, you can take proactive steps to prevent unnecessary exposure and avoid closures in the first place; for example:

  • Call patients prior to their visit, or question them upon arrival, regarding fever, shortness of breath, and other COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Check employees’ temperatures every morning.
  • Check patients’ temperatures as they enter the office.
  • Require everyone, patients and employees alike, to wear face coverings.
  • Ask patients to leave friends and family members at home.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a long-time monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected]

Next Article: