COVID-19 and Contact Tracing
As organizations across the U.S. return to the office, employers find themselves in need of new policies and procedures to protect the wellbeing of their employees and the success of their organization. Implementation of social distancing measures, sanitation, wellness checks, and flexible scheduling can help to stop the spread of COVID-19 but are no guarantee an employee will not contract the disease. In the face of this possibility, employers are finding themselves in need of a plan to address the potential danger of COVID-19 in the workplace. This plan include detailed strategies for contact tracing.
The first step in effective contact tracing is to create comprehensive policies and procedures that are in line with local, state, and federal guidance. Use caution when creating these new policies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released guidance on health screenings but has not released guidance for contact tracing, which means employers should be particularly aware of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) when creating policy. In addition, closely following the changes in Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance can help ensure effective policy.
The CDC advises that any employee who has been in close contact with an employee that tests positive for COVID-19 quarantine for two weeks. Recently, they updated the definition of close contact. Previously, close contact was defined as anyone within six-feet of an infected individual for fifteen or more consecutive minutes. Now, this definition has been updated to anyone within six feet of an infected individual for fifteen or more minutes in a 24-hour period within two days of an individual developing symptoms. Because the threshold is now lower, this can make contact tracing more difficult and makes the need for employers to act quickly all the more important.
Ideally, policies and procedures surrounding contact tracing and quarantine requirements will be in place and communicated prior to employees returning to work but given the fast-paced changes, this is not always possible. Build policy to be flexible and allow for changes as guidance develops. This will ensure that if an employee contracts COVID-19, they know when and with whom to communicate, what the process will be and that their privacy will be respected throughout the process.
When beginning the contact tracing process, work with your sick employee to determine who may have been within six-feet of them in the past 48-hours. Be prepared for some push back as you request that employees disclose information and quarantine. Consider going beyond asking employees who could be at risk, particularly if the employee is reluctant to disclose information. One way to do this is to watch surveillance footage to ensure anyone at risk is quarantined. In addition, prior to your conversations about contact tracing, obtaining a waiver from the infected employee can be helpful. This would allow you room to investigate and ensure the privacy of the employee without risking litigation in the future.
At this point, the sick employee should be quarantining, as should every employee that has come into close contact with that individual. The only exception to this rule is if a business is considered essential. In this situation, those employees who have come into contact with a sick individual do not need to quarantine, but are able to continue to work on site as long as they wear a mask and self-monitor symptoms.
As you investigate, be careful to maintain confidentiality in line with current standards as communicated by the EEOC and ADA. Do not disclose the name of the employee with COVID-19 under any circumstance, and do your best to act quickly without unnecessarily alarming your workforce. Understand the concerns and social issues surrounding COVID-19 and do your best to stop the spread of the disease as quickly as possible, keeping in mind how you will address any push back from employees.
No matter your industry, acting quickly in the face of a potential outbreak is key. Contact tracing and quarantining are currently the best ways to contain the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of your employees. Consider creating a team to monitor the changing guidance surrounding COVID-19 and the legislation to protect employees and employers. Keep up to date with all local, state, and federal guidance on the issue, and do your best to quickly communicate any changes to policy with employees.