RETURNING TO WORK FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

At present, re-testing people who have experienced mild illness, and have recovered from COVID-19 is not recommended. A person is considered safe to return to the workplace and discontinue self-isolation if they are no longer infectious. This means they developed their first symptoms more than 10 days prior and have not experienced any symptoms for at least 3 days (72 hours). However, returning to work is dependent on the patient’s clinical state of health.

The most infectious period is thought to be 1 to 3 days before symptoms start, and in the first 7 days after symptoms begin. But some people may remain infectious for longer and this is because typically with viruses, the higher the viral load (the more virus circulating in the body), the higher the risk of transmission through known transmission pathways. So the more severe the illness and the higher the viral load, the longer you continue to shed the virus and are infectious.

If someone with mild disease has been symptom-free for 3 days and they developed their first symptoms more than 10 days prior, they are no longer considered to be infectious.

It is common for patients to continue to have symptoms for longer than the above time periods (10 days). Full recovery may take several weeks. Patients who are still symptomatic at the end of their isolation period can be de-isolated provided that their fever has resolved (without the use of antipyretics) and their symptoms have improved. If symptoms are persisting, the worker should seek medical assessment from their practitioner

If a worker has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and isolated in accordance with the guidelines, an employer may only allow a worker to return to work on the following conditions:

  • The worker has completed the mandatory 10 days of self-isolation;
  • The worker may need to undergo a medical evaluation confirming fitness to work.
  • The worker on returning to work then needs to wear a surgical mask for 21 days from the positive test result while at work and practices social distancing and good respiratory and hand hygiene.

The employee’s entitlement to sick leave is outlined in section 22 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Further guidance on this around COVID-19 is found  on page 8 of  https://www.nioh.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/C19-OHS-Directives-June-2020.pdf

People who have been self-quarantining, because they had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and have completed their 10-day quarantine period without developing symptoms, can return to work on day 11. There is no requirement to be tested prior to returning to the work. It is, however, recommended they continue to practice social distancing and good hygiene as a precaution and wear a surgical mask.

People who have tested positive for COVID-19, currently re-testing people who have experienced mild illness, and have recovered from COVID-19 is not recommended. A person is considered safe to return to the work and discontinue self-isolation if they are no longer infectious. This means they developed their first symptoms more than 10 days prior and have not experienced any symptoms for at least 3 days (72 hours). There should be a work with precautions in place that include social distancing, employing good and hand respiratory hygiene and wearing a surgical mask for 21 days from the date of the test.  Medical evaluation may be necessary to determine fitness to do their job.

If you work closely in the same environment as a person with COVID-19, you will need to self-quarantine for 10 days because you have had high-risk exposure. High-risk exposure means you have had direct, close contact for more than 15 minutes with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and you did not wear protective cloth face masks or you had physical contact or took other risks that could have exposed you to the COVID-19 virus. 

A patient can have a false negative if they have very little virus up there or perhaps the specimen was taken inappropriately. It didn’t get up high enough to actually get to the place where the virus was located. If a patient presents with symptoms of COVID-19 — cough, fever, shortness of breath — but they test negative, they should consult their health practitioner for further assessment.

Patients can remain PCR positive even after they are no longer infectious. A positive PCR test does not equate to an infectious, viable virus. Patients may be de-isolated without the need for repeat PCR tests provided the patient’s fever has resolved and their symptoms have improved. Those with mild disease may be de-isolated 10 days after symptom onset, while those with severe disease may be de-isolated 10 days after achieving clinical stability (e.g. once supplemental oxygen is discontinued).

Suspected COVID-19 cases who are or have mild disease, may be managed at home while awaiting test, isolated from the workplace. These workers should communicate with their manager and not be at work until they have results. Constant communication with their employer is essential during this time so that the workplace can take steps to manage and clean as appropriate.

For any additional workplace issues around COVID-19, please contact the National Institute for Occupational Health hotline at 0800 212 175 or email at info@nioh.ac.za