By Ian G. Whipple, OD
Dec. 30, 2020
Everyone is at risk for catching COVID-19. Those who work in-person with members of the public, like optometrists and their staffs do, may be at heightened risk. In my practice, I have had to manage multiple cases of employees reporting symptoms of the virus, and one instance of an employee who contracted the virus. Here is how I handled it.
Over the past six months, four of our 14 employees have developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have tested for the novel coronavirus. Only one employee has tested positive so far, and she has recovered fully and has now returned to work.
Clear, Consistent Communication with Staff
I have tried to be clear and precise in all COVID communications with our staff. Every team member knows our office screening protocols, and that we require all employees and patients to feel well in order to enter the office.
We have asked employees, who demonstrate even trace symptoms, to stay home and consider COVID testing. One of our employees felt fatigued on a Wednesday and promptly alerted us. She stayed home for a couple of days until her symptoms worsened. She tested positive on Friday and alerted me right away about her results. Other employees who tested negative were also comfortable in sharing the results of their COVID testing immediately. I think we’ve been fortunate to have a staff that trusts each other to the point that they confided their results immediately. I feel that they did this to protect the rest of the team.
Create a Firmly Enforced COVID Protocol
Establish a COVID protocol if you haven’t already. Write down the expected steps you’d take for any scenario. It makes it so easy to follow a protocol when one is already established.
Our office COVID protocol states that nobody (employee, doctor, consultant/ vendor rep or patient) experiencing symptoms is allowed to enter the office. Anybody who has experienced symptoms within 14 days, or anybody who has a member of their household who has experienced symptoms within 14 days, are also prohibited from entering the office. We screen temperatures and administer a COVID risk questionnaire to everyone upon entry to the office. We require strict mask wearing and removed all furniture from the office to discourage a “wait room.” We allow only one guest per patient and encourage patients, whenever possible, to visit us alone to promote social distancing.
Reach Out Personally to Employee(s)
When we first learned that one of our employees had tested positive, my first action was to call the employee personally. I wanted to make sure she knew that I cared about her and that I was supportive of her quarantine period. I made sure she knew that I would pay her for 80 hours of work during the 14-day quarantine. I also asked specific questions about her adherence to our mask policy. Our employees are amazing and are doing a great job of wearing their masks all the time.
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We determined that one other employee had consistent potential exposure to the employee who tested positive. They both worked in the same office room (spaced apart as far as possible from each other.) The two employees had already been in contact with each other, and the COVID-exposed employee decided on her own to test for the virus. She tested negative. Our office COVID policy states that the cost of COVID testing for any employee will be covered by the company. We made sure to remind all employees of this policy.
Encourage Employee(s) to Contact Local Health Authorities
I encouraged the COVID-positive employee to reach out to the county health department to initiate contact-tracing efforts. She did, and within a few days, the county reached out to us to inform me of her positive test. I was frankly surprised when the county health employee told me that most employers she has reached out to weren’t even aware that one of their employees was sick. I feel grateful to our staff for being so open and caring about the rest of their team.
CDC COVID Protocol
Our employee who tested positive works in a closed-door administrative office, and didn’t come into contact with any patients. If there had been a patient exposure, we would have reached out to the county health department for further guidance regarding contact-tracing efforts.
Thoroughly Disinfect Work Station of Affected Employee(s)
We have been using hypochlorous acid to disinfect all surfaces. Before our employee even got her results back we had thoroughly disinfected her work station with hypochlorous acid. The staff members who filled in for our sick employee did use her physical workspace and were careful to frequently disinfect the phones, computer and other supplies and equipment.
We stayed open during our employee’s quarantine period. We were able to fill the staffing void and work through it.
Consider When It’s Recommended & Possible to Test Everyone in the Office
After talking with a friend and primary medicine colleague, we determined that it was not necessary to test everybody in the office. At the time, in Utah, where our office is based, it would have been impossible to obtain testing orders without symptoms. Even in cases of exposure, if an employee didn’t manifest symptoms they were not able to be tested. I believe that has now changed in Utah. As cases continue to rise, the accessibility of testing has improved. I plan to continue covering the cost of all necessary COVID testing for our employees.
Reinforce What is Hopefully an Already-Honest Relationship with Staff
Be upfront and open with staff. Hopefully, an open-door policy has already been established in which they feel confident sharing their concerns and test results with you.