By Yvette Lawrence-Hood, DrPH, Senior Contract Analyst, Interactive Government Holdings
As the federal government’s recently issued guidelines call for a phased-in approach to returning the workforce to normal activities during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, decisions should be measured in the protection of employees. Returning to workplaces present significant challenges amid heightened risk of infection for COVID-19 but it presents opportunity for alternative work options. Conventional methods of working on location is being substituted for working remotely – full time or part time, even in conditions not typically found to be conducive.
Though much is still unknown about COVID-19, the virus is thought to be spread from person to person via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, by someone touching a surface or object with the virus, or by aerosolized transmission. Contagion occurs via entry in the mouth, nose, and eye and is more likely when people are in close contact (reportedly within six feet). While some work environments may allow employees to maintain a six-foot distance and work in solitary spaces, the majority do not. Plus, solitary workspaces quickly vanish and can lead to a trail of infection when employees use shared spaces like restrooms, kitchens, lounges, vending machines, elevators, conference rooms, training rooms, copy machines, and other communal areas. Not only does working in crowded spaces make it easier for contagion but equal opportunities for contagion exist in less crowded environments when several dozens, hundreds, and thousands gather to work in the same location.
The Epidemiologic Triad is a model that epidemiologists use to understand ways in which diseases are spread and how to stop the spread of diseases like COVID-19. The triangle includes an agent, a host, and an environment that when functioning together, cause infection.
The agent is the cause of the disease (COVID-19), the host is the person exposed to the virus and can get the disease (employee) and the environment is the favorable surroundings and conditions (workplace) that cause or allow the disease to be transmitted to a new person. The goal in public health, aptly explained by Tulchinsky and Varavikova (2014) is to disrupt the connection of the triad – interrupt at least one of the three areas to stop the spread of COVID-19. Therefore, removing the environment, in this case the workplace, works as a powerful intervention to reduce the number of new infections (incidence), reduce the total number of people infected (prevalence), reduce complications of infection, and reduce the number of deaths in a specific period (mortality rate) associated with COVID-19.
As most states announce phased removals of stay-at-home orders and the gradual reopening of the economy from the COVID-19 shutdown, companies and agencies are increasingly normalizing working remotely. In 2018, the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported nearly 24 percent of the employed workforce also worked at home. In the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, that percentage in the U.S. is estimated to skyrocket with the release of updated labor statistics. The outbreak is causing a shift that can result in a higher than average percentage of employees continuing to work remotely for the next several months and beyond this pandemic. When possible, teleworking aligns with recommendations of epidemiologists and the scientific community for limited movement and social distancing to stop the spread of the disease.
Employees returning to the workforce in mass pose risks in the workplace and the community. Employers must mitigate risk and establish processes to protect its staff, especially staff at higher risk of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance on health and safety standards so workplaces can reopen safely while remaining in compliance with local and state orders. The CDC guidelines recommend employers meet specific conditions prior to reopening; guidance on operations once open to include hygiene, cleaning and sanitation, social distancing and teleworking when possible; and monitoring protocols to include communication, identifying and handling of COVID-19 cases, and other control measures to keep the workplace and workforce safe.
With technological capabilities supporting a remote work environment, teleworking seems to have gained a stronger foothold in the U.S. workplace. Teleworking appears positioned to be part of the long-term strategic alternatives to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus disease. In response to the virus associated with more than 90,000 deaths in the U.S. and with disease models projecting as many as 147,000 deaths in the next three months, the path forward may likely be a full telework work schedule like that announced by Twitter or at least for a part of the work week. COVID-19 has upended the traditional work patterns replacing it with solutions that reduce risk of infection and which allow for employees to work from home. This augurs well for the employer and the employee as opportunities abound for making teleworking a safer, more convenient, and appealing choice.
Yvette Lawrence-Hood holds a Doctor of Public Health degree from Morgan State University. She is a Senior Contract Analyst for Interactive Government Holdings, supporting our work with Defense Health Agency, National Capital Region.
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