FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Someone at your office had COVID a few days ago and is now back at their desk in the cubicle next to yours. That can’t be OK, can it?
What exactly does it mean to test positive now that masks are off and life is back to normal? What are the COVID rules anyway?
The rules for isolating, staying home from work or parties, and masking include a lot of gray areas now that everyone seems ready to move on from the pandemic that ruined past holidays. Official guidelines often differ from unofficial recommendations that individuals and employers follow.
The official guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say if you test positive for COVID-19, stay home for at least five days and isolate from others in your home. You are most infectious during the first five days. You can end isolation after five days if you don’t have symptoms and are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication).
“The CDC says you don’t have to retest after five days, but I find lot of people are coming back to ask for a retest,” said Elyse Roelans, a family nurse practitioner with CVS Minute Clinic in Davie. “People just feel better getting a negative test, and some schools and workplaces require it.”
If you are still sick after five days or your symptoms were more than just mild, the CDC says to isolate through day 10.
Return to work, sick leave
With COVID precautions lifted, employers mostly rely on their workers to stay home if they are sick and to wait until they are symptom-free to return to the workplace.
“Some employers are more stringent about requiring negative results than others,” said Kimberly McNeil, Society of Human Resource Management Knowledge Advisor. “It depends on the type of work and labor constraints.”
McNeil says employers can ask a worker to go home if he or she is coughing, sneezing or appears sick — even if it means the employee will lose pay. “Employers have a duty under [federal law] to have a safe workplace.”
Because of COVID, “a lot of workplaces now have communicable and infectious disease policies,” she said. While employees no longer must pay workers who miss work because of COVID, some businesses have improved on their sick pay.
“Overall we are seeing more employers looking to offer enough paid time off so when COVID comes up, employees will not risk coming in ill,” McNeil said.
The CDC says you are supposed to wear a mask around others for 10 days if you have COVID unless you test negative on two at-home tests 48 hours apart.
The mask requirements in almost every workplace are gone, so it’s mostly up to each person to decide how cautious to be.
“Some employers are asking their workers to wear a mask as a courtesy, but they are not mandating it,” said Priscilla Torres, chief human resource officer at Health Choice Network and president of the Human Resource Association of Broward County.
Many workers at grocery stores, nail salons, doctors’ offices and call centers continue to wear masks at work for their own safety.
Employees may want to put on a mask if their co-worker is coughing and chooses not to mask up. “I think COVID made us more sensitive to not wanting to get sick,” Torres said.
Roeldans at CVS said certain people at risk should still wear a mask in public places.
“If you are immunocompromised or elderly or have other health conditions, it’s a good idea to wear a mask,” she said.
As companies bring back holiday parties, Torres says COVID is less of a concern than last year, but not completely forgotten.
“I think at some holiday events, masks will be out on the table for anyone who wants to use them,” Torres said. “We should not be shaming anyone for wearing one.”
Tatiana Milan, president of HR Miami and senior director of human resources at American Welding Society, said holiday parties are back and she expects some employees will wear a mask.
“We also are hosting hybrid events for those who are not able to attend in person and for our remote employees. This allows everyone an opportunity to partake in the events,” she said.
Let’s say you have been around a co-worker, friend, family member or fellow traveler who tested positive for COVID. What is the official guidance for what to do? Does it make a difference if you already had COVID in the last few months or have been vaccinated with the new booster?
The CDC says if you know you were exposed, watch carefully for symptoms and wear a mask around people who are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. You can develop COVID-19 up to 10 days after you have been exposed. But you don’t have to isolate.
“If the CDC is not concerned about an exposure, most organizations are abiding by that,” Torres said. “They want you to come to work if you have no symptoms.”
Roelans says a PCR test done by a health care provider remains the gold standard for learning whether an exposure has become an infection. Results from PCR tests at CVS pharmacies come back by the next day, she said. “Once you have symptoms though, rapid tests work just fine.”