A step-by-step guide for addressing a COVID-19 exposure in the workplace

With the rise of highly contagious variants of COVID-19, your organization is likely to experience an exposure. Navigating privacy laws, personal beliefs, and everchanging official recommendations while addressing an exposure in the workplace is challenging. Here is a step-by-step breakdown based on CDC guidelines to help manage and contain an exposure. Remember that recommendations vary from state to state and change regularly; we advise reviewing CDC, OSHA, federal, state, and local requirements regularly.

1. Require the infected employee to quarantine

If an employee in your organization has tested positive for COVID-19, send the employee home and require them to quarantine per CDC guidelines. Currently, the CDC recommends that employers require the infected employee to quarantine for a minimum of five days after onset of symptoms and at least 24 hours after symptoms and fever have resolved or use a test-based strategy in which the infected employee tests negative for COVID-19.

2. Find out who has been exposed

Thoroughly investigate who came in close contact with the infected employee. The CDC defines close contact as:

  • Less than 6 feet away from an infected person (laboratory-confirmed or a clinical diagnosis)
  • For a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over 24 hours (for example, three individual 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes)
  • Beginning 48 hours before the infected individual first started exhibiting symptoms

Notify your local health authority if you experience an outbreak. The CDC recommends employers notify local health authorities if they learn about two or more employees who test positive for COVID-19 among employees who have been in close contact with another employee that has tested positive for COVID-19. Check your local health authority website to find the definition of an outbreak in your area.

3. Notify exposed employees

Immediately notify all employees who were in close contact, but do not release the name of the infected employee.

4. Require exposed employees to take safety precautions

Employees should quarantine if they:Employees do not need to quarantine if they:
  • Have not been vaccinated or completed a primary vaccine series
  • Have not received a recommended booster shot when eligible
  • Received all recommended vaccine doses, have no symptoms, and have not had a positive test result
  • Had COVID-19 within the last 90 days and have no symptoms
The exposed employee should quarantine for five days from the date of last close contact, then wear a well-fitting mask around others for an additional five days after returning to work.The exposed employee should wear a well-fitting mask around others for ten days from the date of last close contact. If symptoms develop, they should quarantine and get tested.

5. Disinfect the workplace

Clean the infected employee’s workspace, the surrounding common areas, and other areas where the employee has been. Encourage all employees to disinfect their work areas regularly.

6. Return to the workplace

  • Notify an infected employee they cannot return to the workplace until they have been quarantined for a minimum of five days and have been symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
  • Notify an exposed employee who has been required to quarantine that they cannot return to work until they have been quarantined for at least five days from the date of last close contact. Require them to wear a well-fitting mask around others for an additional five days after returning to work.
  • Employers may also choose to implement a testing strategy requiring infected or exposed employees to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to the workplace. Organizations at higher risk, such as healthcare facilities or those interacting with the public, may choose to require weekly testing for all employees.

Employers may choose to allow infected or exposed employees to work from home while they are in quarantine. If it is not feasible for the employee to work from home, you can require them to use available PTO as per your company’s time-off policy.

We highly recommend making informed decisions about how your organization will address COVID-19 safety protocols. Document them in a written policy that lays out behavioral expectations concerning COVID-19 vaccination, testing, and workplace safety procedures. Implementing and enforcing a COVID-19 safety policy based on federal, state, and local requirements and guidelines will minimize legal risk, provide guidance when addressing conflict or disciplinary action, and promote the health and safety of your employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines are updated frequently. As we face new variants and work to contain the spread of COVID-19, be sure to review their guidelines regularly.

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