Measles: How to Protect Against an Epidemic

The spread of the measles across the U.S. has left many in fear of an epidemic. With cases in more than twenty-three states, the public and employers are left wondering how to best defend themselves, their families, and their community. While the majority of adults in the U.S. are vaccinated against the measles, some are not due to social/religious reasons or underlying health concerns that may leave their immune system compromised. The worst case scenario for an employer is that a sick, unvaccinated employee comes to work unknowingly spreading the infectious disease; making vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals a carrier of the measles.

Most states do not require vaccinations, and employers are only able to require them if the populations they serve are at-risk, such as small children or those with compromised immune systems. While requiring vaccinations is possible in some professional spheres, experts suggest against it as a whole, encouraging employers to become prepared and educate their employees in place of a heavy-handed approach. This encourages better employee morale and ensures the organization does not violate the ADA or other local, state, and federal laws that protect a person’s medical privacy.

If employers cannot require vaccines how do can you best prepare to combat the growing measles epidemic?

Plan ahead. While you hope not to see a case of the measles in your office, developing guidelines around prevention, education, and response can help to ensure your employees, their families, and the organization are protected. Know who will be on on lead the response team if needed. Ensure that steps are laid out for the worst case scenario and that adequate resources are available to your team and your management to assist with clear education surrounding the risk, and easily attainable steps and action items if an employee contracts the disease.

After creating a plan, it is time to put prevention and education components into place. Encourage your employees to get vaccinated. Educate them on the risks this disease poses to them, their loved ones, and the general population. Ensure they understand the initial symptoms and when to stay away from work. If you are concerned your employees are not receiving the vaccine, you can take additional steps to encourage safety; offer financial incentives, such as reimbursement for vaccinations, or offer on-site vaccinations to your employees. When putting these pieces into place, carefully assess how you are requesting and/or discussing vaccinations for the employees. It is important that you respect the privacy of each and every employee and remain in compliance with laws protecting privacy, religious beliefs, disabilities, or any other issues that may keep an individual from being vaccinated.

As part of your preventative measures, PTO can be a useful tool. Ensuring your employees have adequate PTO and/or sick time will make it more likely that they will take time off if they exhibit symptoms. In addition, encourage your employees to use their PTO/sick time. This can be as simple as checking the number of sick days employees have, and if you notice an employee is stacking up days, encourage them to take time off. Make sure your employees don’t feel that they’ll leave their coworkers at a loss if they take time off through adequate work distribution and let them know that your organization is happy to offer sick time and wants them to take advantage. In a worst-case scenario, if you notice a sick employee is exhibiting symptoms of the measles, carefully pull them aside and request that they go home. Encourage them to rest and come back when they are feeling less under-the-weather.

When prevention and education are not enough and an employee contracts measles, it’s time to initiate your planned response. Planning ahead for your response will make this step run quickly and smoothly, ensuring everyone who is able can be protected against the outbreak. After you learn an employee has contracted the measles, your first step should be to notify the local Health Department; while maintaining the individual’s privacy is key, the health department needs to know that a case of the measles has been found in your area in order to protect the general population and your community.

The second step should be to inform your employees and educate them on what their next steps should be. Make sure they understand that they are not just exposed, but potentially also a carrier, meaning their family and friends may have been exposed. Anyone born after 1957 is likely to have been vaccinated, but there is additional risk if a person has chosen not to be vaccinated, there is a baby at home, or an employee or their spouse is pregnant. Ensure your employees know about the risks associated with being exposed to the disease, where they can access medical care, and what symptoms they should be on the lookout for. As with the Health Department, it is important that you maintain the privacy of the sick employee, out of respect and in order to comply with the ADA and other legislation. Do not give out the sick employee’s name or in any way point out that the employee is not present; while some may assume who the employee is, it is important that you maintain the confidentiality of the situation.

The last step should be ensuring that the sick employee understands what they can do as they recover. Ensure the employee understands their PTO, sick time, and FMLA policies, and help them understand how each can be used and when FMLA applies. If your employee needs to use FMLA, help them understand the process and what paperwork will be needed. Lastly, make sure they feel safe in their ability to recover; encourage them to take the time that they need in order to fully recover and not risk the further spread of the disease. If a sick employee feels their job is in danger, they may be more likely to return to work before symptoms have subsided, exposing others to the disease.

Planning ahead is essential to effective education, prevention, and response to any infectious disease. While it’s not common to see cases in the workplace, planning for that possibility can ensure that your organization maintains compliance with local, state, and federal laws in the case of an emergency and that your employees and the organization are protected. Ideally your employees will choose to get vaccinated, but you need to be prepared for the reality where they do not or cannot. No matter the decision your employees make, the goal is to ensure a healthy, happy working environment and that begins with planning for the safety of your employees.

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