Usually the start of summer is a time when Americans are thinking more about getting away than going back to work. But with all 50 states partially reopening amid the Covid-19 pandemic, people whose business have been closed and people who have been working from home now have to think about what returning to the physical office means for them.
In fact on May 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines for employers about how people can safely return to office buildings and work. That’s because even if your workplace has reopened, going into the office is not a zero-risk situation. (Proper hand hygiene and keeping appropriate physical distance are still important when you’re outside of your home, for instance.)
Think through your daily routine when you’re at work: “What is it exactly that you’re doing, and what is it that you’re exposed to in an office situation?” Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells CNBC Make It.
From riding in an elevator to buying your lunch at the cafeteria, there are lots of interactions and scenarios to consider. Here are some common concerns you may have about returning to your office, and how to stay safe, according to experts.
The concern: “I work in a large office building with crowded elevators.”
The advice: First, “there should be a hand sanitizer station at the entrance and exit of every elevator,” Dr. Jay Varkey, associate professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at Emory University Hospital, tells CNBC Make It. The CDC guidelines for reopening say that supplies like soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, tissues, paper towels and no-touch trash cans should be readily available.
Some people prefer to press elevator buttons with inanimate objects or a paper towel.
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“Of course you need to be in the habit of performing hand hygiene after touching such surfaces,” Leonard A. Mermel, professor of medicine at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and medical director in the department of epidemiology and infection control at Rhode Island Hospital, said in an IDSA briefing May 19.
Or “you can mitigate the risk from touching an elevator button simply by sanitizing your hands when you exit the elevator,” Varkey says.
Ideally, your company and office building would limit the number of people who can ride in an elevator to allow for separation, Varkey says. And you should be hyper-diligent about wearing a mask and only riding with one or two other people.
The concern: “I’m worried about sharing facilities such as bathrooms, kitchens, conference rooms, even hallways.”
The advice: According to Varkey, we can “learn a lot from areas where people have continued to work,” such as hospitals and grocery stores. Although hospitals have cramped spaces and communal work rooms, many healthcare workers have been able to avoid getting sick by diligently following safety steps.
For instance, CDC recommends that offices close communal break rooms or stagger use so that there are fewer people congregating at a time, and add floor markings to delineate six feet in spaces where you can’t use physical barriers, according to the reopening guidelines. And it’s on you to avoid congregating.
The same goes for the bathroom: You should avoid going in if many people are using the public restroom, follow hand hygiene and avoid high-touch surfaces.
You also shouldn’t share food (or coffee makers) with your coworkers at lunch, or snacks with your office mates anymore, he adds. These high-touch communal items should be replaced with single-serving, pre-packaged alternatives, according to the CDC’s guidelines for office buildings.
Sitting at a table with a coworker to eat lunch is also risky, because we tend to touch our mouths and faces often while eating.
People in offices should also continue to use masks when taking breaks and keep physical distance in any shared space, Gosenhauser says. This is especially true in areas where workers like to socialize, because “there’s a tendency for people to relax in that environment,” according to Gonsenhauser.
Employers and employees should also do their best to eliminate face-to-face meetings in conference rooms that can be addressed virtually, Varkey says. “I think we need to be better about not scheduling those meetings,” he says.
Or take lunch breaks and meetings outside, where there is less of a chance of transmission of the virus, suggests the CDC’s office guidelines.
The concern: “My workplace has an open office plan, and I sit very close to my colleagues. Are cubicle walls high enough to protect me?”
The advice: Open office plans may become a thing of the past to reduce the likelihood of transmission. While adding cubicles and physical barriers can encourage more distance between workers, they don’t get rid of the risk entirely.
“If you spend your day at a computer in a cubicle, greater than six feet from other people, not engaged in direct conversations your risk is pretty low,” Gonsnhauser says.
But even if you’re in your own space, you still have to keep it clean.
“There should be a clear expectation that the individual who works in that space is expected to keep high touch surfaces clean,” Varkey says. That means wiping your desk, computer and phone with disinfectant, and any other areas where people put their hands or belongings.
For people whose jobs require interaction or more specialized environments, such as a dentist office, the risk is much higher so the guidelines are more stringent, Joseph Allen assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a Facebook Live Q&A on May 12. You may be required to wear additional personal protective equipment, and follow increased hand-washing protocols, he said.
The concern: “Will I need to be tested for Covid-19 or antibodies to return to work?”
The advice: Testing could be one part of a business’ strategy to reduce transmission, Mermel said.
The problem is it can “give employers and potential employees and false sense of security,” Mermel said. For example, if an employee tests negative for Covid-19 or positive for antibodies, they may feel like they can let their guard down with other safety and prevention measures.
Tests are also nuanced, so there’s a possibility that a test could return a false negative (in the case of the Covid-19 test) or false positive (in the case of antibodies), or a specimen could be collected incorrectly, Mermel said.
That said, “testing is important particularly if you have someone with symptoms,” Dr. Preeti Malani, fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief health officer and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, said in the briefing. “It does not, however, replace the need to physically distance.”
And don’t be surprised if your workplace has other measures in place, such as daily health checks that include screening for temperature and symptoms, “safely and respectfully,” according to the CDC’s reopening guidelines.
The concern: “Wearing a mask all day at my desk sounds uncomfortable, but I’m sure it’ll be required.”
The advice: Per the CDC guidelines, businesses should enforce wearing face masks or cloth face coverings when feasible. It’s most important to wear a mask when you’re in places where you can’t maintain social distance, such as an elevator or hallway.
Any employer that’s instructing employees to wear masks in the workplace should also provide masks and make sure people know how to properly wear them, Varkey says.
And yes, unfortunately, wearing a mask all day can be uncomfortable.
One of the biggest complaints that Gosenhauser hears from healthcare workers is that the straps on a mask can irritate their ears after a long period of time. You might want to find one that ties in the back rather than loops to prevent that from happening.
Moisture is another issue: “They can be warm, they can be damp, and so that can be uncomfortable on your face,” he says. If that happens, you should change to a fresh one.
But you should find a mask that you can comfortably wear for the duration of your day without touching or adjusting it. But you shouldn’t wear the same mask for longer than a day. (Once you’re away from any other people, for example, in your car or inside your home, it’s safe to remove your mask, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.)
“You may want different masks for different days,” he says. For example, you might want to use a different mask when exercising outdoors than you do sitting at your desk, because different materials feel more comfortable on your face depending upon the setting and activity.
Make sure that the skin products or makeup you wear doesn’t interfere with the cloth covering, either.
The concern: “I have to take mass public transportation to get to work. That seems unsafe.”
The advice: Public transportation is a high-risk opportunity for infection, Gosenhauser says. According to the CDC reopening guidelines, businesses should “ask employees who use public transportation to consider using teleworking to promote social distancing.”
If that’s not possible, think about using “an alternative mode of transportation — like a bike, walking or even potentially a car where you’re only exposed to one other person — those are going to lower your risk,” he Gosenhausersays. To that end, something employers can do to help people get to work safely is open up parking options for employees who want to drive into work, Varkey says.
“A lot of this is going to come down to personal responsibility,” Allen said in the Facebook Live.
The concern: “What if I take the virus home with me on my work clothes?”
The advice: The main way that Covid-19 spreads from person to person is through respiratory droplets when a person sneezes, coughs, talks or breathes. While the virus can survive for days on some surfaces, experts say that the risk of the particles landing on your clothes is low.
“A droplet that is small enough to float in air for a while also is unlikely to deposit on clothing because of aerodynamics,” Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech told the New York Times in April. “The droplets are small enough that they’ll move in the air around your body and clothing.”
However, for healthcare workers who work with Covid-19 patients, this is a different story. They should shower and change into clean clothes and shoes before heading home, or in an isolated area before entering home, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
The concern: “If I see someone sneezing or coughing at work, that makes me nervous.”
The advice: Before the pandemic, surveys suggested that 90% of people have gone to work sick. “The most fundamental thing we can do to prevent workplace transmission and subsequent spread to the community is making sure that employees are not coming to work sick,” Malani said.
You should stay home if you feel sick and keep track of your symptoms, especially if you have a cough, fever or shortness of breath, according to the CDC.
And if your building or colleagues aren’t following proper procedures for any of these scenarios, or you don’t have the necessary cleaning or protection supplies available, you should speak to your HR department.
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