Returning to work after COVID-19

With increasing vaccination rates against SARS-CoV-2 and ongoing decreases in the cases and deaths worldwide caused by COVID-19 (a serious disease, often fatal, that is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus),conversations have begun around what work will look like as many workplaces and schools anticipate re-opening during 2021.

As organizations consider re-opening and employees return to workplaces, it’s time to revisit best practices for helping prevent COVID-19 spread and infection in shared workspaces and other communal work settings.

Return to work

How does the COVID-19 coronavirus spread?

There are three main ways that COVID-19 can spread from person to person. Prior to vaccination, avoiding exposure to these methods of transmission remains your best weapon against the coronavirus.

Droplet spray in short-range transmission

COVID-19 can be transmitted through respiratory droplets expelled when an infected person exhales (breathes, coughs, sneezes, sings, yells, or talks). Respiratory droplets are generally greater than 5 microns in diameter. They will rapidly fall from the air within seconds to minutes.

Along with social distancing and engineered filtration pressure differentials, masks can be helpful in preventing short-range transmission.1

Since the coronavirus is spread through mucous membranes, which are the thin mucus-producing layers that line your airways, it is important to avoid close contact. This is how most infections occur.2,3

What you can do:

  • Choose an appropriate mask. Protection for yourself and others will vary based on the type of mask you wear. Be sure you know the differences between masks before you purchase one. Properly wearing masks is also essential to infection control and for helping prevent transmission. Until there is widespread vaccination and herd immunity is achieved, it is essential to continue wearing a mask even when fully vaccinated.
  • Keep 6 feet apart from the next person so that you are out of harm’s way in case they sneeze or cough.
  • Do not share utensils, cups, dishes, pens, etc.
  • Do not touch people. This includes handshakes, hugs, and other common sources of physical contact.
  • Keep meetings small with enough space to be six feet apartor join with video conferencing.

Contact (direct or indirect)

The virus can spread from a surface or object with viral RNA shed from an infected person.4

Coronavirus ribonucleic acid (RNA), the basic building blocks that make many viruses, can last for hours or days on almost any surface,including:5

  • plastic
  • wood
  • metal
  • clothes

When an infected person sneezes or coughs, they can infect surfaces with their mucous droplets. When you touch a contaminated surface, infectious material gets on your hands (or other body part). And when you touch your face with this hand, you can infect yourself.

What you can do:

  • Do not touch your face. Follow public health official guidance and wear a mask.6,7,8,9 While wearing a mask, you may be more aware when you touch your face, which can help you remember to minimize the contact your hands make with your face.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands often.Although most people don’t intend to touch their face, they inevitably do. By washing and sanitizing your hands often, it reduces the risk of infection in case you do accidentally touch your face.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes to prevent spreading your own mucous. Wearing a face mask helps prevent you from spreading your mucous.
  • Change your clothes and remove your shoes when you get home. After you’ve finished changing or removing your shoes, immediately wash your hands or sanitize them. This gives you a fresh, germ-free start at home.
  • Bathing or showering can be helpful. Although it’s not necessary, taking a hot bath or shower might help you feel better and more refreshed. Using soap or body wash, rinse viral material off your body before you walk around or do any activities in your home.

Aerosol in long-range transmission (airborne transmission)

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, not all of the mucous membrane that’s released lands on surfaces – there is a portion of that mucous that remains airborne.10,11,12

These small respiratory droplets, 5 microns in diameter or smaller, can remain in the air and travel on air currents far from their source.13 The distance can depend on environmental factors, but can be over 3 feet and beyond.

particle size infographic

If the air is left unfiltered after dozens of coughs or sneezes over the course of several hours, the airborne concentration of the virus can become very high. In fact, in hospital settings or in the homes of people who are infected, the airborne concentration can be so high that simply breathing in this environment can cause infection.14,15

This is why health workers, medical professionals, and first responders need special safety equipment, such as N95 masks.

What you can do:

  • Keep 6 feet apart from the next person so that you are out of harm’s way in case they sneeze or cough.
  • Avoid stagnant air.Keep your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) unit running on fan "ON" setting—not "AUTO"—to ensure that the air is always moving. HVAC air filtration can help reduce airborne infectious material. If there is no HVAC in your office, keep windows open as often as possible. This helps ensure that airborne viruses are diluted to non-critical levels.
  • Use a high-performance air purifier. Some air purifiers can help reduce airborne viruses and improve air quality at work when source control measures, such as handwashing, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance, are being practiced in workplaces.
  • Consider using a personal air purifier. A personal air purifier in your workplace can help provide direct access to clean air.

What to do if you’re vaccinated

To further reduce infection rates and avoid illness, get vaccinated when appropriate. Follow local or national vaccination guidelines to find out when you’re eligible to be vaccinated. In the United States and Canada, the priority order for who can receive a vaccination has been largely set by states and provinces.16,17 Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, have set vaccination priority at the national level.18,19

In early 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted guidance on how vaccinated people could safely consider interacting with vaccinated and unvaccinated people in private and in public.20

The takeaway

As governments and businesses lift restrictions and shift guidance on gathering, the danger of the coronavirus remains real. The dangers still exist even with rising vaccination levels. Make sure that you and those around you are consistently taking the proper measures to protect yourselves.

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