I can’t tell whether someone has COVID, the flu, a bad cold, etc. How should I respond?

As winter rolls around, many of our clients have started to think about the cold and flu season. Every year, I am sure, like many employers, you have an employee that comes into work with a cough, sneezing, feeling miserable, refusing to stay home because they do not want to use a PTO day. So, what is an employer to do?

A timely question, and likely a concern that needs to be planned for in advance. From our research, the best practice for businesses is to continue to follow the CDC’s interim guidance on preventing workplace exposures to coronavirus, which includes, among other things:

  • actively encouraging sick employees (whether sick from COVID-19 or otherwise) to stay home;
  • instructing employees that any individuals with COVID-19 symptoms must notify their supervisors, remain home, and follow CDC-recommended steps; and
  • requiring employees with family members who have contracted COVID-19 to notify their supervisor and follow CDC-recommended precautions.”

We have learned over the past few months that many symptoms of COVID-19 and flu overlap, making it difficult to distinguish between the two and maybe the source of concern and anxiety in the workplace.  Some of the common symptoms of both illnesses include fever, chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or aches, headache, vomiting, or diarrhea. According to the CDC, one symptom of COVID-19 that’s not usually present with flu is a loss of taste or smell.

If an employee presents with consistent symptoms with both COVID-19 and the flu, the most conservative approach would be to treat the symptoms as if they are COVID-19 symptoms unless and until you can determine otherwise. But keep in mind that not every employee who sneezes in the office or complains of a headache should be regarded as presenting with COVID-19. In such a circumstance, we recommend that you talk with the employee to determine whether the employee or you think it prudent for the employee to leave the office, go home and monitor the symptoms to determine if it is safe to return to the office the next day.  Considering that the flu can be contagious, sending an employee home if the employee presents flu-like symptoms would make perfect sense.

Another way to reduce the chances that your employees will present with flu symptoms, which could be mistaken for COVID-19 symptoms, is to recommend (but not require) that employees get a flu shot. CDC research estimates that the flu vaccine usually reduces the risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent in the overall population.

You could make arrangements for healthcare professionals to offer flu shots at your business or provide information on where employees may easily obtain them (many pharmacies offer them).

While there is no perfect solution to the issue you raise, with continued vigilance and adherence to the CDC guidance, you should be able to navigate flu season in your workplace as well as you have the pandemic to date.

To learn how MYPTHRM‘s Trusted Healthcare Partners can assist you with your employee health needs, call us at 516 522-0078 or email us at [email protected]

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My Part-Time HR Manager, LLC, provides advisory services to our clients and newsletter subscribers. None of the information contained herein should be construed as legal or financial advice, nor is My Part-Time HR Manager, LLC engaged to provide legal or financial advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult your legal or your financial advisor if you want assurance that our information, and your interpretation of it, is appropriate to your particular situation.

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