Since monkeypox erupted in the headlines this summer, the question has inevitably arisen: How should employers react to its possible appearance among their workforce?
The Biden administration designated monkeypox a national health emergency after the World Health Organization made it a global health emergency – a designation also held only by Covid-19 and polio.
Although highly contagious from skin-to-skin contact, it results only in a rash and only rarely causes worse symptoms and is not fatal, unlike Covid.
Fiona W. Ong, an attorney with the law firm of Shawe Rosenthal, says “Our recent experience with Covid-19 is a lesson for employers to be proactive in preparing for yet another infectious outbreak. Many of the workplace considerations learned from Covid-19 are equally helpful in helping employers protect the workplace from monkeypox.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monkeypox can spread through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact, including direct contact with monkeypox rash, scabs or body fluids. CDC claims it also can be transmitted by touching objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding or towels), and surfaces used by someone with monkeypox, and through contact with respiratory secretions.
A vaccine that is supposed to prevent contracting the disease exists, but is in limited supply.
Ong suggests that employers prepare by:
- Engaging in employee education. Just as happened in past outbreaks, there likely will be some misunderstanding about how monkeypox is transmitted, and where the outbreaks are occurring. Employees should be educated about the facts, which should calm some of their fears.
- Reiterating non-discrimination policies. In the context of the COVID pandemic. “Given that the monkeypox is typically found in central and west Africa, and is commonly spread during male-male sex, there is the possibility of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, as well as sexual orientation.” Try to prevent this by stressing non-discrimination policies and responding promptly to discrimination complaints.
- Preventing infection in the workplace. She says employees should take appropriate preventive steps in the workplace that are designed to prevent any further spread of monkeypox and other infections, like Covid 19, influenza or even a cold.
Encourage frequent handwashing/sanitizing, allow employees to use protective gear such as masks/face coverings and gloves, perform regular cleaning and disinfection, and instruct employees to seek medical treatment immediately when symptoms appear.
If an employee contracts monkeypox encourage them to seek treatment right away.
The CDC suggests calling ahead to a medical facility before a monkeypox patient arrives, so the staff can prepare to minimize contact with others.
It seems that to contract the disease, exposure to monkeypox must be more significant than under Covid – involving more direct and prolonged contact with an infected individual or materials.
Ong observes. “Employers may require employees who have that level of exposure to remain out of work for the incubation period, either with or without pay.”
Employers also could permit employees to return to work, subject to self-monitoring and with appropriate protective measures, such as wearing a mask and taking sanitary/cleaning precautions.
Keep in mind that any information received from employees having to do with monkeypox exposure, symptoms and medical examinations must be treated as a confidential medical record (which means that it is kept in a secure file separate from the employee’s personnel file).