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A Conversation With ... Cara Erwin

Informatics and Outreach Manager, Springfield-Greene County Health Department

Posted online

The Health Department released a COVID-19 toolkit for businesses this past week. Does this outline new information for employers?
We get calls from employers on a daily basis wondering what they should do now that they’ve had a positive employee in their facility and they don’t know what the next steps are. The whole point of this toolkit is to be able to walk them through, OK, you have a positive employee, now here are the next steps that we would like you to take. Employers and co-workers often know before the Health Department does when someone has tested positive. If we can empower these employers to be able to help us by taking some early actions, it will help reduce the spread.

How is a COVID-19 exposure defined?
Anyone who has had close contact with someone who tested positive. We define close contact as being within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes, regardless of whether or not they’re masked. In workplaces, a lot of times this ends up being a significant amount of the workforce. We want employers to understand the impact so that they can take steps on the front end in order to prevent a significant amount of their workforce having to stay home for 14 days, because we know that that can cause significant disruption to businesses.

What are some best practices you’ve seen businesses adopt beyond masking and social distancing?
A couple of the more innovative solutions we’ve seen is having employees work in cohorts. Basically the same five or 10 employees work together, the same hours all the time, so that if someone were to test positive or to become exposed, it only affects that group of individuals. Also just limiting their activities while they’re at the workplace. One of the challenges we found is that when we call businesses, they’re not quite sure who works with who and where they were and for how long. The better records that they can keep, it’s going to benefit the employer.

If any employee does test positive, how does an employer gauge when it is safe for the employee to come back to work?
We’re very careful not to put a number of days on isolation because it does depend on symptoms. We do follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance. That tells us that an individual who has tested positive has to stay in isolation for a minimum of 10 days from their first day of symptoms.

As school is back in session and testing increases among those populations, what demographic trends are you seeing among the positive cases within Greene County?
The 18 to 22 demographic continues to lead our age cohorts in positive cases. They are the largest percentage of positive cases, and have been for the last month or so. This is concerning because we know that students don’t live in a bubble on campus. They may be working jobs off of campus. They are having social lives off of campus.

It’s been about two months since Springfield City Council passed the face mask mandate. What kind of impact has the Health Department tracked from that ordinance?
We believe masking is working. We don’t have a lot of very strong data right now yet to support it. However, there is scientific evidence to show that masking does help reduce the spread of COVID-19. It doesn’t completely prevent it. That’s why we continue to emphasize that it’s one tool in the toolbox and it is not a replacement for physical distancing.

What are some of the pain points for businesses following these recommendations?
There has been an impact to businesses. We do know that some have had to reduce hours or even close down as a result of an employee testing positive. It doesn’t have to be that way. They can take preventative measures. It’s going to depend on the type of business, but the biggest thing is anything they can do to stay physically distant and limit the amount of time spent together and remain masked. We all know that there’s probably been a time or two that we didn’t feel great but still had to get something done at the office. This isn’t the time to do that. This is the time to make sure that you’re being upfront and honest about what your symptoms are so that you can go home and protect the rest of the workforce.

Cara Erwin can be reached at cerwin@springfieldmo.gov.

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