While many workplaces are settling into a COVID-19 groove of social distancing, face masks, and hand sanitizer, we find ourselves on the cusp of flu season in the United States. Employers should start preparing now for what could be a difficult workplace winter.
Common Flu Peaks Between December and February
Although flu season is hard to predict, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says influenza activity often peaks between December and February. Consequently, many workplaces are likely to see a rise in flu activity at the same time much of the country is experiencing an increased rate of COVID-19 infections.
Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses with some of the same symptoms, but they’re caused by different viruses. The CDC says testing may be required to distinguish between the flu and the coronavirus.
Best Practices for Employers
Provide flu shots for employees. If your employees are working on-site, consider contracting with a vendor to come out and give flu shots. There will be exceptions, and you may not force everyone to get a shot. But being able to get one at work may increase the number of vaccinated employees.
Moreover, if employees aren’t already fully covered under your group health plan, they may appreciate the benefit of the subsidized shots, especially if nonexempt workers are allowed to get vaccinated while on the clock. Alternatively, you might provide time off for employees to get a flu shot as an incentive to be vaccinated.
Encourage workers to use sick leave. Remind employees about your sick leave policy, and strongly encourage them to use it when they aren’t feeling well. Some employers have increased the amount of paid sick time available to employees or are relaxing attendance policies by eliminating any punitive effect for taking time off for an illness.
This should not be a winter when sick individuals muster up their strength and come to work even when they believe they have a cold or the flu rather than COVID-19. Healthcare and critical infrastructure employers that are challenged to sustain operations in flu-induced periods of even higher absenteeism may need to consider testing alternatives to sustain minimum staffing.
Don’t ignore or downplay flu symptoms. Another area of concern is the fact that employees may initially ignore or downplay COVID-19 and flu symptoms because they are so similar to the common cold, allergies, or other ailments. The end result, however, is sick employees will come to work and infect coworkers.
Vigilant enforcement of the daily testing protocols for COVID-19 symptoms before an employee reports or starts work is critical. Reinforce the fact that if employees become symptomatic while at work, they should immediately isolate themselves and leave.
When Employees Can End Self-Isolation
In August 2020, the CDC updated its guidance on discontinuing home isolation. The agency confirmed individuals who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19 don’t need to stay home and quarantine if they (1) contracted the coronavirus within the previous three months, (2) have recovered, and (3) are experiencing no further symptoms (e.g., cough or shortness of breath).
Following widespread reports that the CDC guidelines implied individuals who recovered from COVID-19 were immune from reinfection for up to three months, on August 14, the agency issued a media statement, clarifying:
The latest data simply suggests that retesting someone in the three months following initial infection is not necessary unless that person is exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19 and the symptoms cannot be associated with another illness.
What if Employee Becomes Reinfected with COVID-19?
Although COVID-19 reinfection rates appear to be low at this time, a case was recently documented in Nevada. Consequently, you should consider how to respond if an employee catches the virus again after exhausting all available Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave (if applicable) and sick leave.
The CDC may provide additional guidance if and when reinfection cases increase. For now, “accumulating evidence supports that people who have recovered from COVID-19 do not need to undergo repeat quarantine in the case of another [coronavirus] exposure within three months of their initial diagnosis.”
Still, employees who are symptomatic should isolate for at least 10 days after symptom onset and until the indicators subside, with at least 24 hours fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medications, or longer for those who are severely ill or have conditions that weaken their immune systems (up to 20 days after symptoms first appeared). Your paramount concern should be keeping sick workers out of the workplace.
Now is the time to get ahead of the questions likely to arise in the workplace as flu season arrives and COVID-19 infections increase. Guidance from the CDC and others will certainly continue to evolve, and it’s important to continue to monitor the developments and adjust your policies accordingly. Having a plan in place will bode well for you and your employees alike and provide a solid starting place to incorporate new guidance as it’s issued.
Mary L. Will, Susan W. Kline, and Lynne Anne Anderson are attorneys with Faegre Drinker. Will is professional responsibility counsel to the firm, advising the firm and its lawyers regarding conflicts of interest, ethics, and other legal matters, and may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org. Kline is a former HR function leader and employment litigator with trial experience who is dedicated to helping employers take practical, effective, and balanced action in HR legal matters to promote the organization’s overall business interests and can be contacted at email@example.com. Anderson is an experienced jury and bench trial lawyer with a track record of success in whistleblower/retaliation cases, discrimination claims, and restrictive covenant disputes and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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