Coronavirus Healthcare

How to protect yourself from coronavirus if you work in the healthcare industry

Christina Omlor

As a worker in healthcare, you are no stranger to difficult and stressful situations. In times of a health crisis, you usually know what measures to take and what hospital rules to follow in order to protect yourself and your health. Since the situation with the coronavirus is very new, your employer might not have been able to apply new protocol on staff protection. Since not only you might be at risk, but you care for several groups at risk, it is crucial to help decrease the spread of the virus.

Naturally, there are a few questions arising: First, how can I stay safe? Second, what can I do to keep my patients safe? Third, what are my rights when forced to go home, or I am declared a risk and put under quarantine? There might be a lot going through your mind, but keeping yourself safe and calm is always top priority. 

How can you protect yourself from COVID-19 if you work in healthcare?

It has been announced that there currently is no vaccine or medication to prevent you from getting the coronavirus. It is also not fully clear how COVID-19 transfers, besides presumably droplet infection. The best way to say safe is to avoid being exposed to the virus and practice social distancing. This might not be possible for you when working in healthcare while caring for infected patients or people who are at risk. Taking precautions is therefore crucial to not only protect yourself, but prevent the virus from spreading further. What can you do to stay safe? How can you make sure your patients are safe? Especially when working in a retirement home or with a higher risk group? Here is a list that could help:

1. Tell your employer if you’ve visited a high-risk area lately

Initially, people were considered only at risk if they visited high-risk areas. However, due to the wider spread, the coronavirus has taken on a new status. What was formerly restricted to China and Italy, now counts globally.  Check out the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website for more and valid information about areas declared a risk.  It is important to stay transparent with your employer about you or your relatives’ travel plans, or the people you have been in contact with. If you are told to stay at home, or self- isolate follow the procedure, even though you may have concerns about your job perspective or salary. Find out more about your rights on our website.

2. Tell your management if you, or a member of your household, have particular vulnerabilities

If any of you or your household members has health problems such as weakened immune systems or pre-existing respiratory conditions that may require enhanced protection, it is best to tell your employer beforehand, so protective measures can be taken. This does not only count for the elderly or people with severe health conditions. Asthma, high blood pressure and personal history are just examples of some risk factors which can occur with anyone at any age. Be transparent with your employer.

3. Handle risk patients with extensive care

If you happen to take care of a patient that meets the criteria or is a suspect for COVID-19, the CDC suggests that standard contact and airborne precautions should be maintained. Find out, if your healthcare employer has a respiratory protection program for coronavirus.
If the supply chain in your facility allows it, use respirators only for procedures that generate respiratory aerosols, otherwise use facemasks to protect yourself from droplets. Also use eye protection, gowns and gloves if necessary for your patient care situation.

The patient should be placed or transferred into a single person room with closed doors. This includes putting the patient in a room without air conditioning or recirculating facilities and placing a surgical mask on them. Use AIIR mainly for patients undergoing aerosol-generating procedures.  To effectively stop coronavirus, the transmission has to be decreased by practicing extended hand washing procedures and keeping physical contact to a minimum.

4. Stay at home or ask for alternate shifts or arrangements

If you work in healthcare administration, you might be able to switch into working from home. Should you work as a practical nurse or your job role requires you to visit your healthcare facility, your company may be able to accommodate alternative shift schedules. You and other colleagues can stray from the traditional 9-to-5 workday. This could help you commute with less people and reduce the number of people that you’re at work with at any given time, limiting your exposure to the virus. This may not apply if you work in an ICU. Please speak to your management, about their protocol for healthcare professionals.

5. Wear a facemask

This applies mainly to people who are currently sick or are around other people who are sick or infected with coronavirus, and also before you enter your workplace. To protect against the new coronavirus, the CDC recommends that healthcare workers wear N95 masks, which filter out airborne particles and tiny droplets that may have been coughed up by patients. If your employer chooses to provide you with these, then they are legally required to provide training on how to use and maintain them. Incorrect use renders the masks useless, so make sure you know the correct handling for optimal effect.

6. Practice hand hygiene

Since practicing hand hygiene is crucial in any healthcare position and under any circumstances, you might be familiar with this protocol already. But just to be sure, think about washing your hands after every contact with the public or with patients.

Follow guidelines for coronavirus in healthcare

For detailed and specific information please inform yourself on the CDC Website. However, their basic guideline recommends following general rules of hygiene.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces

  • doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, your bathroom area, faucets and sinks.
  • clean with water first. Afterwards use disinfectants.

Most commonly used household disinfectants will work. If disinfectants are not available to you, dilute household bleach (5 tablespoons bleach per gallon of water) but please do not apply on yourself or other people or use alcohol solutions that contain less than 70% alcohol.

Follow rules on your personal hygiene and minimize contact

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes by using your elbow or armpit instead of your hands
  • Avoid sharing personal items, such as lip balm or toothbrushes
  • Avoid shaking hands
  • Stay at home if necessary or in doubt

What are your rights under COVID-19 quarantine?

This depends on your company’s policies, but so far many larger businesses are seeing to it that affected employees get paid, one way or another. Roughly a dozen states and several cities — including California, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington, San Francisco and New York City — provide paid sick leave to many workers, often including those working part-time.

Employers who are not paying for quarantine periods will very likely let you use vacation, sick time, personal days and other available paid time off — if you have it. If you’re seriously ill or take a while to recover, you may be entitled to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but that doesn’t cover an estimated 40% of workers, so make sure you check with your employer. You might also be eligible for short-term disability benefits depending on your workplace insurance or your state’s requirements. Have a look at our guide to sick leave

What can I do right now?

Stay informed

Keep up to date about the status of the coronavirus outbreak and the things you can do to protect yourself if you work in healthcare by checking out these valuable resources. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The World Health Organization

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