Public health experts agree on the need for widespread testing to be in place before businesses can reopen and the economy restarts. But not every government official is on board. In May, there is a real risk that Americans will be asked to return to work before our public health infrastructure is in place to keep them safe. Workers desperate for a paycheck, have little recourse but to agree.
So what can each of us do to protect ourselves in this scenario and help keep those around us safe? The answer depends in part on what group you fall into: those who have been infected and those who haven’t.
If you’ve been infected with a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19, chances are that you have some degree of immunity to the virus. But what level of immunity and how long it lasts is still a great unknown. It’s also unclear whether or not your infection will reemerge, even after you’ve recovered and tested negative.
Given the current dearth of testing in the US, it’s likely that many Americans were infected but never had their cases confirmed. If this is your situation, be wary of assuming you were positively infected. A false belief in having been bestowed some sort of immunity could lead to more careless attention to handwashing and other proven approaches to avoiding the disease.
Those who have never been infected will continue to be at high risk when lockdowns loosen and must be particularly diligent in their return to work. Though the surge in demand for healthcare services may have passed and hospitals may be better able to manage the needs of those most ill, there is still no treatment or cure for COVID-19 and the death rate for those infected remains far too high.
While the Centers for Disease Control have issued guidance for returning to work, their recommendations do not go far enough to protect those at risk. For instance, an employee with COVID-19 symptoms who was told by their doctor to care for themselves at home would be allowed to return to work just three days after recovery according to the CDC. This means that a sick employee would be back in the office after only three days without a fever or a cough, a recommendation which flies in the face of early evidence which has shown that some patients may be infectious for up to ten days after obvious symptoms have resolved.
To protect yourself, your coworkers, and your loved ones who you return home to each night, here are a few tips I recommend all employees follow based on the science we know now:
If you are sick with a fever or cough — no matter whether you were officially tested and diagnosed with COVID-19 — do not return to the workplace until at least 14 days since the onset of your symptoms and, ideally, up to 16 days. Work should be done remotely from quarantine to protect the health of all employees. When you do return to work, wear a mask, keep a safe distance from your colleagues, and be conscious of what you touch in common areas, wiping down surfaces after you touch them.
If you are not sick but someone in your household is showing signs of COVID-19, do not go into work until your entire household has recovered. COVID-19 is highly infectious and everyone who has had significant exposure to someone with the infection, like in a home environment, needs to quarantine for the full 14 days.
If you are healthy and commute to work via public transit, wear gloves to help you avoid getting the virus on your hands, do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, and leave your phone in your pocket throughout your commute to avoid transferring germs onto its surface. If you can, consider taking a bike or car to work instead, being careful to wipe down all surfaces with disinfectant sheets prior to touching any surface.
If you have another medical condition that puts you at high risk for a severe case of COVID-19, ask your employer to provide you with reasonable low cost solutions to make the office space safer for you. This could include moving your work area away from others, limiting foot traffic around your work space, or using plexiglass, tables or other barriers to ensure a minimum distance between you and your coworkers. You may also want to ask your employer for a change in hours to help you avoid rush hour commutes and to limit the number of employees around you at the office.
Granted, not all of us will be so lucky to work for an employer who will be understanding of our needs. In these cases, it may be worthwhile to visit the US Department of Labor website and review the information they have provided under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as some of these protections are now required by law.
Employees and employers alike are all eager to return to normal, or at least a new normal. But our sense of urgency to restart our economy should not eclipse our sense of duty to our families and those around us who continue to be at grave risk.