Pam Sornson, JD
Even with vaccines being issued across the country, COVID-19 continues to pose a serious health threat, especially to those workers who must report to an office or out-of-home worksite each day. Not only can contracting the disease have lethal consequences, but it can also cause long-term side effects that interfere with the everyday enjoyment of life. Employers should take every precaution possible to avoid a COVID-19 exposure in their place of business and ensure that appropriate remediation policies are in place if it does.
According to investigations conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in summer 2020, people who routinely reported to a worksite or office each day were almost twice as likely to contract a COVID-19 infection as those who worked from home. Researchers came to the conclusion after comparing how often study participants visited other possible infection sites, such as grocery stores, gyms, or salons. Those numbers were similar for both at-home workers and in-the-office workers, indicating that exposure in the community was comparable between the two groups. The study also eliminated 'essential workers' from its cohort since those workers are more likely to be exposed to the virus simply because of the work they do. The CDC used the study to encourage employers and businesses to take every possible precaution to ensure a safe, COVID-19-free environment for staff members.
Avoiding a workplace exposure to the coronavirus is becoming even more significant as sufferers continue to report an ever-growing list of unexpected symptoms. Initially, when COVID-19 infections were first reported, the majority of reported symptoms were similar to those caused by an influenza virus and were primarily related to an upper respiratory tract infection: fever, cough, aches, fatigue, headache, etc. One symptom - loss of sense of taste or smell or both - appears to be unique to this disease.
As the pandemic progressed, however, doctors were stymied by COVID patients reporting a plethora of symptoms that popped up during an active virus infection but weren't typically experienced as a consequence of an upper respiratory viral infection:
Some COVID patients reported nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in addition to the more typical symptoms, while others reported only these symptoms. In China, one study recorded more than half of its participants were experiencing GI symptoms.
Skin rashes also developed in some patients, who described them as raised and painful bumps that showed up on various parts of their bodies that did not respond to typical, topical skin treatments.
In some patients, rashes presented as what became known as 'COVID toes,' swollen and discolored toes on one or both feet. While many sufferers noted just changes in toe color and size, others reported itchiness, soreness, and blistering. In some cases, the COVID toes were the only symptoms of the disease and presented well after their actual infection.
Another confounding symptom reported is hearing loss, possibly caused by the coronavirus. Some patients report suffering an onset of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) after their COVID diagnosis, and one JAMA- Otolaryngology autopsy study found evidence of the virus in the middle ear canals of deceased patients. Several respiratory viruses are known to impact hearing, but those symptoms typically clear once the infection
is contained. With COVID sufferers, there have been reports of lingering deafness even after other symptoms have receded. The virus may also play a continuing role in balance and dizziness symptoms reported by many COVID-19 patients.
Another worrisome, potentially deadly symptom that the virus may cause is blood clotting. One blood clot specialist, physician Alex C. Spyropoulos, MD, suggested that as many as 40% of hospitalized COVID patients at his hospital died because of blood clots, primarily because they cause such damaging incidents like heart attacks and strokes. He describes the disease as being particularly aggressive regarding the development of blood clots and that patients who have the virus are three to six times more likely to develop blood clots than those who don't have COVID-19.
Perhaps the most troubling and surprising symptom reported by many COVID sufferers is brain fog or confusion. Sufferers report a cognitive decline during and after experiencing more acute symptoms and, in many cases, continue to struggle mentally long after the virus has cleared the body. Studies conducted at Indiana University's School of Medicine reviewed the cases of 1500+ COVID survivors and found that almost two-thirds (59%) stated they had difficulties focusing in the weeks and months after their other symptoms had resolved.
That brain fog is apparently typical of what doctors are calling 'Long COVID,' the continuation of symptoms that linger well after recovery should have been complete. The most commonly reported 'Long COVID' symptoms are difficulty breathing, chronic fatigue, and migraine headaches. Increasingly, though, cognitive dysfunction is popping up on symptoms lists. In a global study conducted in fall 2020, researchers discovered that many Long COVID brain fog sufferers couldn't return to work at full capacity for at least six months after recovering from their more acute COVID symptoms.
The study also attempted to gather into a single list all potential symptoms caused by the coronavirus. Reviewing the files of over 3,700 people, researchers recorded over 200 individual symptoms that affected ten different systems and 66 symptoms that lasted seven months or more.
Even with the emerging health data indicating that a COVID-19 infection can cause significant havoc in a worker's life, many employers around the country are still reluctant to assert formal COVID-19 prevention practices at their workplace. In some cases, this reluctance may be because local governments haven't issued them, and business owners don't want or can't afford to incur the expense necessary to make those changes.
In other cases, however, companies ignore new regulations designed to keep workers safe. In Michigan, for example, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MiOSHA) recently issued 23 citations against companies that violated its COVID-19 related "Emergency Rules," with each violation carrying a potential fine of up to $7,000. What makes these incidents so dismaying is that the breaches were so readily avoidable: the three most cited violations across all cases involved failing to require face masks, failing to maintain social distancing, and failing to have a preparedness and response plan ready in the event an infection was discovered. Each of these elements can be relatively simple to implement and enforce, especially when the health of a worker and the business itself are at stake.
Why employers expose their workers to such potentially damaging conditions is a mystery. If nothing else, lingering brain fog and confusion should be of great concern to companies that rely on their workers to perform at optimal levels most of the time, especially those whose work entails precise movements or activities. Further, an undetected but infected worker also has the capacity to infect business colleagues and customers, which escalates the risk of loss to the business. In all cases, even just one case of COVID-19 at a workplace carries the potential for an expensive worker's compensation claim, and may even trigger a more serious civil claim, to boot.
Follow Federal OSHA Guidelines
The fact that there are many states that have not yet adopted COVID-19 safety rules shouldn't deter a company from implementing them anyway using the guidelines issued by the federal OSHA agency. Federal OSHA details the many steps needed to make a corporate facility ready for worker occupation again, especially those that have been shuttered due to coronavirus lock-downs. The organization also details the steps necessary to bring a worksite into compliance with federal COVID-19 standards, including conducting a hazard assessment, developing policies that protect worker safety, and maintaining open communication channels for workers who wish to report a COVID-19 related concern. The emerging health data should act as a warning to employers who have not yet implemented employee safeguards to prevent or curtail the spread of coronavirus disease in their offices and workspaces. While some may think that such precautions are unnecessary, it's becoming increasingly clear that leaving anyone at risk of infection could have long-term consequences that may not take a life but still seriously curtail or negatively impact a worker's life. And even one sick worker imperils the health of the business itself.