As we enter the new year, and the fourth year of the pandemic, the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate. Two new Omicron subvariants, known as XBB and XBB.1.5 – unofficially nicknamed “Kraken” by some scientists – have emerged as the most transmissible strains to date. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that these new strains account for close to 50% of current COVID-19 infections and are leading to a spike in infections.
While thankfully they have not been accompanied by a significant increase in death rates, employers should still review their COVID-19 policies to mitigate the spread of infection (and avoid scrutiny from federal and state workplace safety regulators).
Fisher Phillips, LLC has compiled four steps you should take to control COVID-19 in the workplace.
What Should Employers Do? 4-Step Plan
- Have a Written COVID-19/Infectious Disease Policy. Even if you never adopted a written COVID-19 plan, it’s never too late to document the policies you have in place to keep employees safe from any infectious disease. This is especially important when considering future changes in infection rates in different communities. Work with counsel and/or a safety professional to write down what you are doing to keep employees healthy in response to COVID-19 or any other infectious disease. This helps with training employees on your programs. ASE members can access a template policy in the Contagious Diseases and Pandemic Toolkit found in the ASE Member Dashboard.
- Engage with your Employees. The companies that thrived during the pandemic are those that communicated with, listened to, and engaged their workforce. Ask non-managers for feedback on company policies, listen and address their concerns through tasks like safety committees, audits, and safety improvement projects, and provide a transparent workplace where their concerns are considered.
- Clean the Workplace. There are several benefits to keeping a clean workplace. A sanitized workplace will not just help mitigate the transmission of COVID-19, it will keep employees feeling happy and safe. It may also lead OSHA inspectors to spend less time looking for violations. View a list of cleaners certified to kill the virus here.
- Consider Masking Policies in Areas of High Community Spread. Employers in areas of high COVID-19 community levels of transmission should consider revisiting mask policies. There is a risk of an OSHA inspection (which you can track here) or a General Duty Clause citation if you fail to implement an appropriate mask policy in such an area. While your workforce may be resistant to a mask mandate depending on your circumstances, there may be other ways to implement a policy that offers some level of protection (requiring masks at certain areas or times of day, for example).
CDC’s Guidance on Masks and Isolation Remains Intact
The guidance provided by the CDC in August 2022 remains relevant for employers seeking to promote best COVID-19 practices. High points include:
- Employees, regardless of their vaccination status, should remain isolated for at least five days after testing positive for COVID-19. Employees with no symptoms may end isolation five days after testing positive, but they should continue to wear a high-quality mask (when indoors and around others) and avoid high-risk individuals for at least eleven days after the positive test.
- Symptomatic employees must isolate for at least five days after testing positive, and they must continue to isolate until their symptoms improve and they are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication). They should wear a mask in public for an additional five days after isolation.
- Employees who suffered shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, were hospitalized, or have a weakened immune system must isolate until the tenth day after testing positive, regardless of whether their symptoms are improving. They must continue to wear a high-quality mask and avoid high-risk individuals until at least the eleventh day after the positive test. Some masks, like N95 and KN95 respirators, offer greater protection than others, like standard cloth masks. Employers should beware that requiring employees to use N95 or KN95 masks means they must comply with additional OSHA requirements.
- CDC isolation calculator
Source: Fisher Phillips, LLC