COVID-19: Thoughts from an Epidemiologist

Categories: Clinical Insights, For Employers, General

As we move into the next phase of this pandemic, there are new challenges for employers to think through. This phase of the pandemic is where we may see an increase in illnesses as the virus circulates more widely. And this means there is a greater chance that healthcare systems across the country will become overwhelmed.

This may affect your employees whether they are ill with COVID-19 symptoms or not. Those who have more severe COVID-19 symptoms (e.g., difficulty breathing) may have a harder time getting the urgent care they need, as emergency departments, hospitals, and urgent care facilities get flooded with increasing numbers of patients. Meanwhile, your employees who have chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma might have a harder time getting into their primary care doctors for routine visits or to get their medications filled.

What can you do as an employer?

Encourage social distancing

Follow state or local laws related to social distancing. A recent study suggests this virus can live on surfaces for up to 3 days (unless killed by common household cleaners). But the virus needs to find a host to live in to stay alive longer than that. The idea behind social distancing is to keep the virus from finding another host—in other words, if people don’t go near each other, the virus can’t jump from person to person. That means less people get sick, which lowers the chance that the healthcare system gets overwhelmed and allows people who need care to actually get it.

  • In states or municipalities where there have been social distancing orders released (ranging from shelter-in-place policies to closure of certain types of businesses), employers must comply with those orders.
  • For those locations with less stringent requirements, consider implementing your own social distancing policies to avoid the chance of spread among your employees, while still maintaining business operations. For example, allow employees who are able to work from home to do so, while maintaining the CDC-recommended 6 feet of distance between those employees who do come into the workplace. Or consider creating cross-functional teams and rotating those that come into the office (e.g., Team A comes in on Monday and Wednesday, and Team B on Tuesday and Thursday, etc). That creates a less crowded environment in the workplace and allows the 6 feet of distancing between employees. Another approach is to create a back-up team who works from home and comes in only when someone on the first team gets sick. These are just examples of a number of strategies that can be used to improve social distancing, while maintaining business operations.
Keep sick employees at home

This is a good time to review your sick leave policy — does it encourage sick employees to stay home? As the virus becomes more widespread and testing remains limited, you may want employees to check their own symptoms on a COVID-19 symptom tracker prior to coming in. The CDC does not recommend asking for doctor’s notes from workers at this point, given that healthcare resources are limited.

Connect your employees to the right healthcare resources

For people with COVID-19 concerns, consider making virtual guidance available through telephone support lines, clinician chat services, or other digital methods. In many cases, this will help offload the worried well from the overstretched healthcare system, and help those who are really ill get the healthcare they need. For those employees who are having difficulty getting into their doctor for routine visits or regular medication refills, consider what telehealth options or mail-order/delivery pharmacy solutions you might offer. And think about tele-psych or virtual behavioral health support options that you might offer your employees through this intense and difficult period.

This is an unprecedented time in our history. As an employer, you can really make a difference for your employees as well as for the healthcare system as it becomes more and more stretched. Promoting social distancing, keeping sick workers home, and offering virtual health benefits could make a huge difference in how this pandemic plays out in the U.S.

At Grand Rounds, we’re committed to doing our part to be a trusted source for timely information around COVID-19, in addition to amplifying the latest information from trusted public health resources such as the CDC and WHO. Visit https://grandrounds.com/covid19 to learn more.

Dr. Ghosh is a medical director at Grand Rounds. She has specialized training in epidemiology and disease control and previously oversaw all outbreak response and preparedness activities for the state of Colorado. She has also consulted for the World Health Organization.

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