As an Arkansas employer, you may have shut down or limited your business during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. If you are in the process of planning to bring employees and maybe even customers back to your business, you may have a lot of questions and concerns. We don’t profess to have all the answers, but we do have some suggestions that might make it easier.
Develop a plan
It’s important to think through the process of bringing people back to the office, especially if there is still a risk of contamination. The last thing you want is to bring people back and have to shut down again. Sanitation and social (or physical) distancing are important parts of controlling COVID-19. Walk through your business and consider these things:
What surfaces are commonly touched?
Examples: Doors, elevator buttons, common tools, break room appliances
Be sure sanitizer or disinfectant spray are available along with signs to direct people to wash their hands.
What areas make it difficult for people to stay 6 feet apart?
Examples: Hallways, restrooms, break rooms, meeting rooms, dining areas, locker rooms.
Signage limiting occupancy, or directing people to wait at 6-foot intervals, can help.
Require masks and face coverings
Now that Gov. Asa Hutchinson has signed a mask mandate, and many cities in Arkansas have passed them as well, it shouldn’t be difficult to enforce masks or face coverings in your business. Make sure it is clear which areas require masks and if there are any places where employees can remove them safely.
Stage your return
Some businesses are bringing back a few people at a time in a staged return to the office. This lets you see if there are issues to address before the entire crew is back. Make sure employees understand that they need to be flexible; dates of return may change depending on the situation.
Signs reminding employees and customers to social distance, wash their hands and wear their masks can help you enforce new rules and ease concerns. You’ll also want to post signs regarding occupancy for spaces like stairways, elevators, break rooms and meeting rooms. There are several vendors online with ready-made signs to make this easier.
Screen for fever
You also will want to have a policy about people coming in who may be sick. Temperature screening stations at main entrances can catch employees and visitors who may not even realize they are running a fever. People who have a fever of 100.4 F will need to be tested for COVID-19 and follow CDC protocols. There are different protocols for when people can return to work after being sick or exposed to COVID-19. The CDC has guidance for employers and businesses on how to handle exposures and employees who become ill.
Some employees will be anxious about returning to the office. Employees who are scared are less likely to be productive and may make poor decisions. You can help calm fears by being as transparent as possible and addressing their concerns. Frequent communications about the return, requests for them to submit questions and following up with answers will go a long way to calm fears. If you offer an Employee Assistance Program, be sure to remind your employees of the value of that benefit.
Should you test for COVID-19?
One proposal being widely marketed to employers is return-to-work COVID-19 testing for employees. It is important to understand the types of tests available, their efficacy and their limitations.
The two types of COVID-19 tests are PCR/antigen tests, which detect active COVID-19 infections, and antibody tests, which detect if the person had the illness in the past. The tests are important for monitoring the virus’ impact on public health and detecting previous infections, but there are limitations:
- PCR/antigen tests are generally accurate when the test result is positive, but testing someone early on in an infection can lead to a false negative.
- According to the CDC, antibody test results should not be used to decide about returning people to the workplace. Almost half of all “positives” are false and a second test is needed to confirm a positive result. While hundreds of antibody tests have flooded the market in recent months, very few antibody tests have been validated and authorized by the FDA. And, it is still unclear if antibodies equal immunity.
Are diagnostic tests for COVID-19 covered without a copay, coinsurance or a deductible?
The answer to this question is YES if the test (1) has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (or there is a pending request for such approval)*; (2) has been ordered by a physician; (3) is medically appropriate for the individual; (4) is for diagnostic purposes.
Tests that do not satisfy these requirements are not required to be covered without member cost-sharing under the coronavirus aid deal. Testing to screen for general workplace health and safety (such as employee “return to work” programs), testing for public health surveillance or for other purposes not primarily intended for individualized diagnosis or treatment of COVID-19 or another health condition does not qualify.
With that baseline criteria in mind, let’s consider whether the following scenarios would be covered:
- Members who have symptoms of COVID
- Members with a high-risk exposure (as defined by CDC guidance)
- Members checking to see if they are free of the virus after a positive testing
- Members who have no COVID-19 symptoms or high-risk exposures but may be curious about whether they have COVID**
- Symptom-free employees returning to work
Diagnostic COVID-19 tests for people who think they may have COVID-19 are covered (when ordered by a member’s physician) by a federal mandate that says diagnostic COVID-19 tests must be covered and cannot be subject to copays, coinsurance or deductibles (which patients are usually required to pay).
The passage of time and opportunities for exposure are two factors that are problematic for reliance on coronavirus screening tests as a preventive measure. Whether the test is a nasal swab or a blood test looking for antibodies, the results can put others at risk, depending on when they are conducted and whom the subject has had contact with.
A person who appears virus-free today (even with the backing of a scientific test) may be infected. A negative test result can mean you were not positive … yet. And, the false sense of security generated by such a test can put others at risk.
Questions? Contact your authorized Arkansas Blue Cross account representative.
* Diagnostic COVID-19 tests include amplified nucleic acid (e.g. RT-PCR) and antigen tests. This requirement for payment applies only during the pandemic emergency period as defined by federal law.
** This applies to any form of testing via nasal/throat swab (for molecular/viral or antigen testing) or blood (for antibody testing). Also, antibody tests, in particular, are not authorized by the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for diagnostic use.