Health Features

Getting Back to Work

We’re all eager for a return to some sense of normal, and for many, a big part of that is saying goodbye to working from home. As the city continues to open this summer, more and more St. Louisans will be returning to in-person working environments. While it is cause for excitement, that doesn’t mean that COVID-19 is just going to disappear. It’s important that we continue to keep ourselves and those around safe as we start to come into contact with more people.

Greater understanding of how the disease spreads can help us work smarter and safer. Luckily, we already have an excellent model for how to deal with the virus in the workplace, according to Dr. Stephen Liang, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine. “Many hospitals have been operating with people working in close quarters for the past three months,” he notes. “The health care system has shown which interventions most effectively curb the spread of infection. It’s a mix of social distancing, everyday prevention practices and protecting vulnerable populations.”

Maintain social distancing: “COVID-19 primarily is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which when expelled, can travel up to 6 feet,” Liang explains. “That’s where the magic number for social distancing comes from.” He suggests limiting the number of people in conference rooms and break areas. If a meeting space does not allow people to maintain the proper distance, consider adding a videoconferencing component. “Providing an environment where you can separate people minimizes the risk of transmission,” he says.

Practice proper hand hygiene: “Everyday prevention is really important,” Liang notes. “So many different kinds of infection can be prevented by soap and water or hand sanitizer. Washing your hands frequently protects you from germs transmitted by others and the environment.”

Wear a mask: Face masks help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets. “When you wear a mask, you’re protecting others,” Liang says. “Face covering is especially important in indoor settings where it’s more likely you’ll come into close contact with other people.” In workplaces, masks should be worn when it’s not possible to maintain a 6-foot distance such as in hallways, elevators and break rooms.

Clean the environment: Regularly sanitize high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards.

Look out for others: While the majority of COVID-19 cases are mild, the virus is still a serious threat to some populations, such as senior citizens and people with pre-existing medical conditions. “It’s important to protect these employees because they have the greatest risk of an adverse outcome,” Liang notes.

Stay at home: One of the most important things about returning to the office is actually knowing when it’s time to stay home. Don’t go to work if you feel sick or are exhibiting symptoms. “Taking sick days is something many of us aren’t good at,” Liang notes. “We feel the need to push through because we don’t want to let down our coworkers. But it’s important to realize that spreading infection won’t help anyone. We must promote a work culture where people can feel safe and seek medical care if they need it.”