What to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19

Jul 1, 2020
Editor's note: Recommendations in this story have been updated as of February 15, 2021 to reflect the most recent CDC findings on COVID-19.

With more than 6,000 stores around the globe and IGA China headquarters in the original epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, IGA has been fortunate to have seen only minimal cases of COVID-19 infections in our stores up to this point.  

"I've been very proud of the way IGA retailers have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis," IGA CEO John Ross says. "By following precautions outlined by the CDC, local government, and IGA (see IGA's minimum safety standards), we have protected IGA stores and associates better than many other national retailers. These simple precautions do work, and I encourage retailers to remain diligent in practicing and implementing them." 

And yet, with COVID-19 infections in the U.S. skyrocketing this week and summer vacations scheduled, it's likely that cases will grow throughout the communities we serve. What can you do to protect the safety of your employees and shoppers this summer? 

Planning for Vacations 

With demand up and labor availability short, it's nearly impossible to keep your store staffed for vacations, let alone a 14-day quarantine after returning from that vacation (or even a 7-day with a negative COVID test result, as recommended by the CDC beginning December 2020 for unvaccinated individuals). But retailers can take precautions and ask associates to be smart and cautious while away and upon their return. Baker's IGA, with four locations in Ohio, did just that, issuing the following note to employees planning summer vacations.

The first thing we ask of you is that as you and your family are planning a much-needed vacation, please remember that you have received valuable knowledge on how to stay safe. Please continue to use these practices as you move out of your normal areas—whether traveling by air, car, etc. to another state or more populated areas. We kindly ask that you continue to follow the state's guidelines for safe practices—such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and carrying those wipes and hand sanitizer with you. Please consider doing the things that keep you safe but also keep others around you safe.

Upon return, we do ask that if you have been part of large crowds in which you might have been affected, that you self-monitor. While we do not ask that you completely self-quarantine, we ask that you might take a few days between your vacation and returning to work. Especially if you have flown or been out of state, we ask that you work with your store manager to possibly arrange your schedule to start later in the week after your vacation.

If you show any symptoms or have a fever of 100.4, please do not come to work. Please know that we will not be adding additional paid vacation days to accommodate this, so please keep this in mind as you make your vacation plans."

But what do you do if—despite your best efforts—an employee tests positive for COVID-19? We've outlined the best protocol for moving ahead should that happen in your store.

STEP 1: Containment

If an employee reports symptoms and/or feeling ill, send them home or to a health care facility immediately. The employee should stay away from the workplace until they no longer have a fever (100.4ºF or higher) or other symptoms for at least three days without using a fever-suppressing medication AND at least seven days have passed since the onset of symptoms.

If the employee tests positive for COVID-19, first contact your local health department for their advice on how to proceed. Then, move quickly to contain the virus at your store. The CDC recommends that you immediately close off any areas that the sick employee used for prolonged periods of time. Wait 24 hours if possible before cleaning and disinfecting those areas, as you want to minimize the risk for other employees to be exposed to respiratory droplets. While waiting, increase air circulation to these areas by opening outside doors and windows if possible. 

When it’s time to clean the areas the infected employee used, follow the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection recommendations, which include:

  • Use soap and water to clean dirty surfaces first before disinfecting them. 
  • Disinfect dirty surfaces using EPA-approved disinfectants for the virus and surface.
  • Wear gloves, protective clothing, or PPE and gowns that are appropriate for the chemicals used during cleaning. 

Returning to Work After a Positive COVID-19 Test

Retailers with an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 should work with their local health department on the best course of action for an employee returning to work after recovering from COVID-19. As of November 20, 2020, the CDC recommends allowing employees with symptoms or positive COVID test results to return to work when the following conditions have been met:

  • At least 10 days* have passed since symptom onset and
  • At least 24 hours have passed since resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
  • Other symptoms have improved

When they do return to work, they should continue to wear a well-fitting mask, practice social distancing when possible, and wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

*Review details on the 10-day timeframe here.

STEP 2: Communicate with Employees

Gather your employees to inform them that a fellow associate has tested positive for COVID-19 while maintaining the confidentiality of the infected employee (as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)). Alert them to the steps you have and are continuing to take to protect them from exposure and infection, and encourage them to be extra cautious in monitoring their health for symptoms. You will also need to determine which employees may have been exposed to the virus based on the infected employee’s role and behavior in-store and specifically inform these employees of their potential exposure (while continuing to maintain the infected employee's confidentiality).  

From there, the retailer and employees should follow the public health recommendations for exposure as outlined by the CDC, consider whether or not the exposed individuals are vaccinated, and contact their local health department for advice and local guidelines. Communicate to employees verbally and in writing the importance of staying home if they feel sick, and be prepared to cover the shifts of any employee with potential exposure to the ill associate. 

STEP 3: Communicate with Shoppers and the Public

If an associate tests positive for COVID-19, a retailer’s swift response will work to protect other employees and shoppers from being exposed. Likewise, communicating with shoppers and the public in a transparent way will help protect the reputation of your business and your brand, says Ashley Page, IGA's crisis communications lead. 

"If someone in the community hears you have an infected employee, it's highly likely you'll start getting questions from shoppers—both in the store and on your social media channels," Page says. "The key is to get out in front of those rumors with the facts, and share with the community what you're doing to make your store safe."

IGA has created a press release you can use as a starting point, but Page stresses the importance of reviewing any statement with your local health department first. "It's crucial that your shoppers see you're working within local channels to mitigate the infection," she says. "Having your local health department standing behind you saying you are following the protocol that they and the CDC have outlined will make all the difference in public opinion."

COVID-19 Press Release for IGA Stores-400w_Page_1While it may seem frightening to be so transparent, Page stresses that retailers around the country in similar situations are largely being supported by their communities. "This isn't like your typical crisis involving one store or one brand. Every store, brand, and family in the country has been impacted in some way," she says. "As long as you're following protocol and doing your part to keep your team and your employees safe, most retailers—particularly independents who already have a close relationship with their communities—are seeing their shoppers rally around them."

STEP 4: Prevention

Once you have completed the above steps, it’s crucial to continue to protect employees and shoppers from contracting COVID-19. Follow the steps outlined here and below, and regularly review the CDC website for updates, as experts learn more about the virus, how it spreads, and how its spread can be prevented every day. 

To review, here are six steps to help protect your employees and shoppers from contracting COVID-19 at your store:

  1. Hygiene: ensure all employees practice good hygiene.
  2. Social distancing and masks: remind employees to avoid close contact with others at work and at home.
  3. Cover coughs and sneezes: use a mask, tissue, or inside of the elbow.
  4. Clean and sanitize: incorporate increased regular cleaning and sanitizing procedures in store.
  5. Monitor health: ask employees to monitor their health and increase staffing capabilities for backup.
  6. Stay connected: use IGA's resources to ensure you're up to date on the latest COVID-19 news and prevention measures.
STEP 5: Additional Resources

In responding to a sick employee, retailers should consider many sources, including the CDC, WHO, OSHA, and more. Here are a few additional resources for your review.

If you have questions on how to address a positive COVID-19 test at your store, please contact IGA's Ashley Page at apage@igainc.com.

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