Is Your Site Prepared for the COVID-19 Pandemic?
We'll review the best practices for operating a housing site during a public health crisis.
Whether or not cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in your area, you should review your site’s emergency response plans and update them accordingly as a precaution. Your efforts may not only reduce the spread of the disease, but can help you maintain site operations and minimize disruptions caused by staff absences.
Worse than Seasonal Flu
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state, and local health departments currently are responding to the increasing number of people diagnosed with COVID-19. This respiratory disease has captured the attention of the public and health professionals because it can kill healthy adults in addition to elderly people with existing health problems. Although some of COVID-19’s symptoms such as fever and coughs resemble those of seasonal flu, it’s much worse because it’s more contagious, more deadly (particularly for older people), and it has a greater potential to overwhelm the healthcare system.
In addition, the evidence is showing that COVID-19 can be transmitted by people who are just mildly ill or not yet showing symptoms. This makes it much harder to contain than the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which were spread much less efficiently and only by symptomatic people.
For owners and managers, COVID-19 presents its own unique challenges because operating a site at a high level, around the clock, is essential to continued business operations. The following are COVID-19-specific preparedness points industry and public health organizations say owners should be executing now.
Prepare for Staff Absences
If there’s evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in your area, your site should be able to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of severity. Be prepared to refine your emergency response plans as needed.
Your emergency plans should include expecting and allowing staff absences due to illness or family member illness, quarantines, and school or public transportation closures. As a starting point for developing or refining a plan in anticipation of an outbreak, you should:
- Cross train employees to perform multiple job functions in anticipation of increased employee absenteeism;
- Set policies for telecommuting, flexible work hours, and staggered shifts to the greatest extent possible; and
- Set protocols for staff to stay in touch with their supervisors.
For strategies you can adopt now, the CDC recommends the following:
Actively encourage sick employees to stay home. Staff members who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines such as cough suppressants. Staff members should notify their supervisors and stay home if they’re sick.
In addition, you shouldn’t require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
Your site should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
Separate sick employees. The CDC recommends that staff who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms such as cough and shortness of breath upon arrival to work, or who become sick during the day, be separated from other employees and sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).
Communicate policies and educate staff. Emphasize that employees should stay home when sick and practice respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene at work. The CDC has downloadable print resources such as handouts and posters that cover facts about COVID-19, what to do if you’re sick, and best practices for stopping the spread of germs. You can find these resources at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html. Place posters where staff members are likely to see them.
In addition, consider providing tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for employees to use. And instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 to 95 percent alcohol or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty.
Conduct risk assessments, maintain confidentiality. Staff members who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisors and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure. If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
Minimize Chances of Transmission
The characteristics unique to apartment buildings will probably not exacerbate COVID-19 transmission rates. According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. These particles don’t remain suspended in the air, so close contact with an infected individual is required for transmission. Therefore, the mere presence of sick residents at the site shouldn’t pose a threat to other residents or staff.
People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (that is, the sickest). And some spread might be possible before people show symptoms, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Don’t disable HVAC systems. Shared heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems also don’t generally help transmit viruses. Therefore, staff and tenants shouldn’t disable or otherwise alter HVAC systems unless expressly instructed to do so by local authorities or experts such as building engineers. Doing so could compromise the indoor air quality of the building and the overall health of tenants.
Increase frequency of cleaning. In line with the CDC’s guidelines, owners and managers must ensure that common areas are frequently cleaned and disinfected. You and your staff should:
- Wear and use appropriate personal protective equipment. For cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, staff can wear disposable gloves. Gloves should be discarded after each cleaning. If reusable gloves are used, those gloves should be dedicated for cleaning and disinfection of surfaces for COVID-19 and should not be used for other purposes. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and disinfection products used. Clean hands immediately after gloves are removed.
- Wipe down frequently touched surfaces (such as drinking fountains, faucet handles, door hardware, elevator buttons, and light switches) daily with a disinfectant. The CDC has not recommended additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning at this point.
- Use regular disinfection products (such as Clorox, Purell, and peroxide products). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (such as concentration, application method and contact time, use of personal protective equipment). According to the CDC, for disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.
Avoid any activities that are counterproductive to greater mitigation efforts. For instance, if local authorities close schools, it wouldn’t make sense to create onsite childcare arrangements that mimic the classroom setting.
On Feb. 28, a report from the WHO-China joint mission cited family-spread transmission as a possible big reason for China’s apparent success in slowing the spread of the virus. Once one member of a family is infected, it’s usually easy to find other family members who may have had close contact and then put them in quarantine for 14 days. In addition, the WHO says that social-distancing measures—such as when China extended the national Lunar New Year holiday to keep people from traveling or working, closed offices, and canceled public transportation—have helped slow the transmission of the disease there. Such steps could be effective in other countries, including the U.S., where the virus is spreading in some communities. Data from China’s government show that the country’s coronavirus infection rates peaked in late January and have declined ever since.
Outside of China, much of the spread has come from mass gatherings. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, more than 700 passengers and crew members caught the coronavirus. And more than 2,000 infections have been linked to a church group in South Korea.
As a result, localized responses in your area could differ from what other regions of the United States are doing. This is why it’s important to get coronavirus information from your state and local health departments as well as the CDC.
ONLINE CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
- 2019 Novel Coronavirus Webpage: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
- What you need to know about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/2019-ncov-factsheet.pdf
- 2019-nCoV: What the public should do: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/what-you-should-do.pdf
- Stop the Spread of Germs: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/stop-the-spread-of-germs.pdf
World Health Organization (WHO)
- WHO information and guidance on COVID-19: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
- WHO FAQs on Coronaviruses: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses
U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- 2019 Novel Coronavirus Overview: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/
- Protecting Workers During a Pandemic FactSheet: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHAFS-3747.pdf
- Worker’s Rights and Employers’ Responsibilities: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/standards.html#workers