As corporations are beginning to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the practical aspects of how to take action are becoming more challenging. To appreciate the implications of this, let’s look at an example, if one of your employees is found to be ill with COVID-19.

Let’s imagine:

What are the implications for you as an employer? To understand this, we will need to answer: When did the employee become ill?

Incubation Period: How long does it take for symptoms to appear once infected?

Our current understanding is that COVID-19 is spread from person to person, and so it is important to notify others should a case occur in a work environment.

A recently published study confirms fewer than 2.5 percent developed symptoms within 2.2 days. The estimated time from being exposed to the development of symptoms is a median of 5.1 days. Estimated time until development of a fever was 5.7 days. Of those who are the latest to develop symptoms, 97.5 percent of those infected had symptoms appear by 11.5 days.

So, in our example above, the employee was likely infected five days BEFORE they felt sick. The employee left work on Day 1, but first felt symptoms on the prior date. Let’s call the Tuesday before they left work Day 1.  The latest understanding is that the employee was likely infected 5 days before, which means they could have been spreading the virus on the previous Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before feeling symptoms on Tuesday, which would be the typical 5th day from infection. It is being reported in a soon-to-be-published study that researchers found “very high levels of virus emitted from the throat of patients from the earliest point in their illness — when people are generally still going about their daily routines.”

Did the infected employee unknowingly “share” their virus in the office over the weekend or on Monday, Tuesday, or before they left work on Wednesday? What about the previous Friday? It is difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly when the employee became contagious, but the science is telling us this is the likely timeframe.

The coworkers who were exposed and contracted COVID-19 will start having symptoms about 50 percent of the time. The challenge is that the workforce who has been infected have also been at work and exposing others for multiple days. Thus, the high rate of spread once the virus enters a community…or business. This is a real problem when an employer is attempting to limit spread.

So, Now What?

In the best of all possible worlds, all the employees at work will have used social distancing, the workspaces and other shared spaces will have been cleaned regularly and thoroughly, and the workers had used hand washing extensively and retrained themselves not to touch their faces.

In this scenario, the employer could communicate to the workforce that they may have been exposed, to monitor for fever and other symptoms and signs over the weekend, and do not come in if a fever of 100 degrees or symptoms of sore throat, cough, or shortness of breath occur. If deemed necessary (depending on the compliance of the workforce), temperature checking could occur prior to entering the premises to offer additional screening.

In reality, full compliance with these guidelines is very challenging. It won’t be long before we know how well the safety measures worked as other employees monitor for symptoms.

When Can the Employee Return to Work Safely?

In the same study mentioned above, it is concluded: “The scientists could not grow viruses from throat swabs or sputum specimens after day 8 of illness from people who had mild infections.” For those with moderate to severe symptoms, the jury is still out on when they can return to work.

Because of all of this, managing the COVID-19 virus in the workplace is going to present significant challenges.

The key is going to be educating, encouraging, and supporting employees, following the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing and personal hygiene, as well as early identification of risk and/or symptoms and quarantining those at increased risk.

This is particularly true for those at increased risk who may be well advised to stay out of the workplace, when COVID-19 appears in the community, until it is controlled.