When you have a business to run, there are few things more troublesome than when you are alerted that an employee has tested positive. The call we fear most is the one when an employee or fellow worker says, “I have tested positive for COVID-19.” It is an increasingly frequent phenomenon, for which you have to be prepared. It’s going to happen. And, chances are it’s going to happen more than once.
We interviewed the CEO of a manufacturing company, who was notified that the spouse of one of his workers tested COVID positive. The spouse, who worked in a healthcare facility, had been tested the week before and had just received notification of her results. She was still asymptomatic despite her positive results.
The CEO's first step was to instruct the employee to quarantine, with pay, for two weeks. He would be allowed back in the workplace only when a test taken after the period of quarantine showed a negative result. But that was just the beginning. What about the rest of his employees and what about his business? The countdown began.
Communication Is Key in the Early Moments
The first step in an effective response is to communicate with others at the site. In this case, the CEO sent a text alert to everyone at the facility. He then spoke individually with his most trusted upper-level personnel and a meeting was planned for early the next morning.
In this case, the CEO had the foresight to adopt strict protocols for office and factory workers in advance. Gloves, masks, and distancing were mandatory. Break and lunch schedules became fluid while congregating in break rooms and lunch rooms was stopped completely. Additionally, employees were directed to take lunch in their office, on the plant floor, or outside. Getting carryout or delivery during the workday was prohibited, as were any other types of contact with outside individuals. Hand sanitizing stations were located throughout the facility and frequent hand washing was encouraged.
Informational posters regarding COVID-19 were downloaded from the CDC website, laminated, and placed at various locations where they would likely be seen by employees. They had now created a plan of action for use as needed and conveyed it to everyone in the company.
Testing, Testing, Testing
The CEO realized that with the potential of an infected person working at the location, everyone needed to be informed of the situation. The business owner had many employees, not all of whom were covered under the company health plan.
The next morning selected staff members were assigned the task of identifying testing options, including ORs, hospitals, urgent care centers, and even the Department of Public Health. Time being such an importance, they needed to know who could provide testing and how fast the results could be returned.
Urgent care centers appeared to be the best options, so they began booking online appointments. They also found that the public health facility was accepting walk-in patients for testing, which worked well for those without health insurance. Company time was provided for testing, and employees were tested in small groups at staggered times to minimize job disruption. Nasal swabs, blood work, and saliva testing were used at different facilities. 100% of the staff were tested within the first 24 hours.
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Testing has been far from optimal during the early months of the pandemic. Do you shut down on an if-come that there’s going to be a positive response? Do you wait for test results? What are your choices?
“Because the employee who first reported that their spouse was positive was quarantined, we were lucky enough to escape a mass infection,” he explained. Because test results came back from 15 minutes to 15 days, it made it very difficult to make decisions on how to safely continue working. Eventually, one senior office member tested positive. She luckily had been on vacation when she discovered the positive results. She, too, was told to stay home for two weeks, along with an associate who drove to work with her. Once you get a positive test, your action plan needs to be implemented immediately.
The act of hiring a clean-up crew proved to be easier than initially thought. Most emergency response companies involved in fire and water restoration had already prepared their companies for additional work in COVID remediation. They are used in 24 -7 emergencies.
The owner placed the initial call for remedial help the night he learned of the initial employee's positive test. The next day, a crew arrived to wipe and clean with alcohol and disinfectants. Commonly-touched surfaces such as door handles, buttons, keys, and computers were given priority, along with all bathroom and kitchen areas. The cleaning company was diligent and made a conscious effort to allow for cleaning with minimal work interruptions.
At the close of business day, carpets were steamed and a disinfectant was applied then extracted. The Coronavirus remediation crew wore protective gear, and respirators, and used chlorine misting devices throughout the offices after employees had left for the day. Employees were instructed to leave everything as is on their desk. The only objects requested to be removed were ones that people might put near or in their mouths, such as coffee cups, pens, water bottles, and all everything else was left as is, in place.
“The following day, we had our office cleaning crew come in and carefully wipe the residue from surfaces, glass, computer screens, and the like,” our CEO recollected. “It wasn’t that bad. There was a residual bleach smell for about a day.” The cost was negligible for the quality of work. It was virus-free or very close to it. “We viewed it simply as a cost of doing business, good business. You have to do what’s right for your company.” They found the remediation companies to be fairly transparent with their charges.
Update Your Protocols
Once they had initiated the preliminary plan, they realized there’s always something you haven’t thought of. What about the mail delivery? What about sales calls from vendors, delivery drivers, friends and family, even your children? Who do you let in, who do you not? “These are things you couldn’t possibly think of until it happens to them,” he thought.
In their office, they stopped everyone in the lobby. No one was allowed in unless you were a staff member and wearing a mask. Mail was left at a window. Office supplies were left in their lobby and checked-in by office staff afterward. On their docks, they built a partition to keep truck drivers in a limited space at the doorway.
Masks were required to be inside the facility. Their employees opened and closed trailers. Bills of ladings were signed, but they did not hold the carrier accountable for counting the freight. They accepted all responsibility during the pandemic for freight shortages, which ultimately were minimal due to the extra attention they gave to the orders because of their marching orders. There was initial pushback from drivers, but they simply held their ground, mask, or no entry, period!
They kept detailed monthly reports for their Safety Manuals and were very disciplined in recording everything they were doing, not only for reporting requirements but for their knowledge and history. Write everything down. Time passes quickly and maintaining good notes provides a good record for the future.
Protocols need to be fluid and continually updated for best practices. As the pandemic ages, you need to be on-going in your discipline to keep a safe work environment. People, along with protocols, become fatigued. They weekly reviewed what was working and what wasn’t, and changed accordingly. Change is a must because every day brings a new challenge.
With time, more and more information and testimonials are available online. Do your homework. Stay current. Learn from others. Download information, posters, names and addresses of local healthcare facilities, and maintain current best practices for keeping up-to-date with the Coronavirus crisis. Post them in highly visible areas, and print them out to give to your employees. Educate everyone on COVID best practices. When prepared, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re safe, it just makes you safer should the worst happen.
“Once Coronavirus strikes, the fear of further infections does not stop,” he continued. We felt an obligation to our community to contact our Public Health Commissioner. They interviewed them as to what steps were taken. After reviewing everything they had done, they received a thumbs up from their County Health Department. They viewed this as a community concern and felt they needed to know.
He went on, “You can NOT keep this information to yourself. Your company will be judged not as THE company that had a COVID outbreak, but as a company that had a plan and executed it for the well-being of yourself, your employees, and your community.” They felt it imperative that they forwarded all issues to the health department for their reporting needs. “They weren’t going to shut us down or penalize us. They are there to work with us, so we took advantage of that relationship. It’s what they do. It’s not the health of a single worker; it’s a public health crisis.”
Be prepared. Have a plan. Keep the plan fluid and constantly update it. Research what information is out there. Record the journey. Be prepared to have it happen again. Run your business using best business practices. Do the right thing and provide the best work environment possible to ensure that you are open and conducting business. Lives depend on it.