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Preparing for a new normal

May 19, 2020 | UCI Health
Preparing for a new normal at work

With state and local restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 easing, trails and beaches are open at least some hours so people can stroll or swim. Select stores are able to offer curbside pickup to customers.

Soon more businesses — not just ones deemed essential — will be calling employees back to work at least some of the time.

Employees understandably have concerns about how their new workplaces will look and whether returning will be safe. They wonder how to best safeguard their health.

Those safeguards will continue to include keeping at least six feet from others and wearing protective masks.

“We’re not going to be able to go back to the life we used to lead,” says Dr. Susan Huang, UCI Health director of epidemiology and infection prevention. “We are going to have to be masking and social distancing for some time.”

Keeping your distance

To ensure we all can keep a safe social distance from colleagues, workplaces may need to be reconfigured.  

Work stations with plastic or acrylic partitions can go a long way toward protecting workers while fostering personal interactions through facial expressions.

“In my office, cubicles are equipped with plexiglass partitions so colleagues can talk to each other without masks if each person is in their workspace,” Huang says.

“Literally, I sit in my cube, take off my mask and I can see and talk to the person one or two cubicles down through plexiglass. It’s only when someone comes around to the opening in my cube that we both have to be masked.”

Be careful what you touch

Workplaces also are full of surfaces that many people touch and where the new coronavirus can live for up to two days.

That means employers need to provide more handwashing or alcohol hand rub stations. Employees also need to observe strict hand hygiene, both for themselves and their co-workers.

The work surfaces, themselves, also need regular cleaning. Is your company stepping up disinfection and cleaning routines?

Think about what you can do to keep your immediate work area germ-free.

Eating at work

It’s important to be careful in common areas such as break areas or lunch rooms.

“There may be people at night in your work area that you don’t see,” Huang says. “Maybe I walk into the break room, I sit down and eat my lunch, but the table I’m sitting at hasn’t been cleaned since the person used it last night.”

To avoid contaminating your lunch, be sure to place it on a protective surface, such as a clean plate or bag, and ensure your hands are cleaned with soap and water or alcohol hand rub before you touch your food or utensils.

It’s also important to keep your mask clean when taking it off to eat.

“I keep a clean baggie to put my mask in and I make sure I have clean hands when I take it off and put it on,” she adds.

A new workplace etiquette

Keeping yourself and others safe also includes staying home when you aren’t feeling well.

“We need to make sure people aren’t working sick,” Huang says.

“Employers are going to have to create a new culture. They need to say ‘We’re not looking for those who would normally tough-it-out through a cold, but instead praise needs to be given to people who are attentive to staying at home when sick to protect each other.”

And where possible, some people should continue working from home to allow for greater social distancing in the office.

Navigating public spaces

Public spaces and workplaces where many people congregate pose a variety of challenges.

Huang advises being extra careful about enclosed spaces, such as elevators where it is difficult to maintain six feet of separation.

It is important to make sure that universal masking is observed by all who enter. If not, it may be best to wait for the next elevator.

Elevator buttons and doors, door handles are all high-touch surfaces. Avoid touching your face until you have washed or sanitized your hands.

Perception of risk

As more businesses are allowed to reopen and people return to work, dining out and enjoying the outdoors, infectious diseases experts like Huang know that the virus causing COVID-19 may increase.

“As businesses reopen and the days lengthen with summertime, people may have the perception that the risk is over and let their guard down,” Huang says.

“When the sun came out a few weeks ago, 40,000 people were at the beach.”

How concerned should we be?

Many people are understandably worried not only about work and the daily tasks of life, but also about engaging in normal summertime activities.

Is it safe to use swimming pools? Can the virus cause infection through open car windows or when riding in a convertible? What about using air conditioners?

In outdoor settings, Huang says, observing a six-foot distance and ensuring hands are clean when touching common objects keeps the risk of infection low. Unless someone is actively coughing into your car window, exposure is unlikely. The same idea applies to your home or vehicle air conditioner.

As for swimming pools, the chlorine treatments regularly used keep the water safe from microbes, including killing the new coronavirus.

The real concern should be the surfaces around the pool area, Huang says. Again, you may not know who was sitting there several hours ago, or the day before. Others may have contaminated those surfaces before you arrived.

Are you getting out of the pool near where someone with the virus was recently coughing or reclining in a chair? Are you putting your towel on a contaminated surface, then wiping your face with it?

Be sure not to eat near pool areas unless you can guarantee the food won’t be placed on unclean surfaces or consumed without sanitizing hands.

Shield your face

As with most things about protecting yourself from coronavirus, think first about protecting your face, because the virus is transmitted through the mouth, nose and eyes.

That’s why washing or sanitizing hands before touching your face is absolutely necessary.

“The virus infects you in one of two ways. Either someone who is infected coughs, shouts, or sings directly into your eyes, nose, or mouth,  or your hand touch infected droplets and then brings them to your eyes, nose or mouth by adjusting your mask, rubbing your eyes, or eating with unclean hands.

“The virus is not going to infect you through your hair, clothes, or skin unless you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with contaminated hands.”

Frequent handwashing, preferably with soap and running water, is a new habit we all must develop to protect ourselves, Huang says.

Because sinks are not always available, she recommends keeping a personal bottle of alcohol hand rub nearby so you can clean your hands whenever necessary, especially when you need to adjust your mask or touch any other part of your face.

“Everything," says Huang, "is about the face.”

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