COVID-19 second wave: How to safely bring back workforce to office

Recovered employees might need special considerations on resuming work

By Shrikant Kalaskar
Published: Tuesday 01 June 2021

The second wave of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in India has started receding and unlock procedure in states where strict restrictions were implemented will start soon. Businesses will reopen and people will go back to their workplaces.  

The threat of a third wave of infections is still looming, and as health agencies and experts have predicted, it may be much stronger with new variants affecting the younger population more than the second wave.

Immunisation is slowly picking up pace but the current vaccination coverage is not encouraging. India has vaccinated (two doses) only around 3 per cent of its population so far and the rest remain vulnerable to infections.

People are still unclear about when to get tested, whom to quarantine and the duration of the isolation period, specifically in workplaces. A co-working space in Hyderabad, for instance, tests the entire staff the very next day if a member tests positive or has symptoms of COVID-19.

This approach is not appropriate as there is a possibility of everyone testing negative given the incubation period of the virus. The report, more dangerously, might lead them to be carefree and ignore symptoms that may appear after 5-6 days of infection.

Owners / managers of some factories and offices are hesitant to give paid leave to employees who have not tested positive but are primary contacts of a positive case in the workplace. This small cost-cutting can affect a larger number of employees, eventually hampering business more severely.

Primary contacts should be quarantined for 14 days and observed for any symptoms, according to national guidelines. If they develop even a mild cough or low-grade fever (over 37.3 degree Celsius or 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit), they should isolate at home, report to the nearest designated health facility and inform workplace.

Testing protocols

Early testing exhausts resources, burdens testing facilities and gives false a false sense of security (as there are high chances of testing negative), further fuelling the spread of infections.  

Some workplaces are still asking for a negative RT-PCR report for resuming work after recovering from COVID-19.  This is against the current testing guidelines of Indian Council of Medical Research.

It has been observed that even health professionals are going for RT-PCR tests after testing positive on Rapid Antigen Test (RAT). We need to understand and accept that RAT has high specificity. One should get an RT-PCR test done only when they have tested negative on RAT despite displaying symptoms.

An RT-PCR test can also yield a false negative report. It is best for persons from containment zones and primary contacts of COVID-19 patients to quarantine for at least seven days (even if asymptomatic), irrespective of the test result.

Post-COVID-19 care

Workers who are returning to work after recovering from COVID-19, especially those who have been severely ill, will require certain considerations because of the sustained effects of the disease and complications arising from it.

There are some indications that COVID-19 patients may suffer from reduced lung capacity after recovery. Workers in this situation may need their work to be adapted and may need some time off to undergo physiotherapy.

Workers, who have had to spend time in intensive care, may face specific challenges. The workers' doctors and the occupational health services, if available, should advise on the manner and timing of their return to work, considering they may experience muscle weakness and have problem with memory and concentration.

Many people may need support coming out of grief and depression caused by the pandemic crisis. Workplaces should also look in to the mental wellbeing of employees and support wherever possible.

Point of contact

Businesses and employers can play a key role in preventing and slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 within the workplace by following COVID-19-appropriate behaviour.

Workplaces should try and get their employees fully vaccinated, avoid close contact and socialising, continue mandating the use of a proper mask, make sanitisers / soap and water easily available, check if an employee is showing symptoms of COVID-19 and get the person an appointment with a doctor.

Workplaces should also seek professional advice on testing, quarantine and isolation period of employees. Factories and big businesses should consider appointing a single point of contact for employees to consult if they develop symptoms or test positive.

The health guidance and services should be extended to the family members of the employees.

Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect that of Down To Earth.

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