Coronavirus infection or flu symptoms? Here’s what to do about sick employees

The number of coronavirus cases in our country is increasing and the testing capacity in the laboratories is limited. This means that not everyone with symptoms can be tested. It will soon no longer be possible to distinguish a systematic infection with the coronavirus from an infection with the influenza virus or other respiratory infections causing flu-like symptoms. How should organisations handle this?

What instructions should you issue to an employee who is taken ill at home?

Employees who are taken ill at home and have flu-like symptoms (a combination of fever, coughing, shortness of breath, runny nose, sore throat, headache, aching muscles, tiredness, etc.) should contact their doctor by telephone. They may no longer go to work and, in most cases, will be kept at home in quarantine. Those who are more seriously ill will be admitted to hospital.

What about employees who are taken ill at work?

If the employee is still able to go home on his/her own, ask him/her to do so and contact the doctor once there. Ideally, the use of public transport should be avoided. Should there be no alternative, ask the sick employee to strictly respect the correct behaviour when coughing and sneezing during the journey. He/she must wash his/her hands before leaving.

What if a sick employee is no longer able to get him/herself home?

The correct action then depends on the person’s medical condition. If the person appears to be seriously ill and is deteriorating rapidly, you may contact the emergency medical services. These will then transport the sick employee to hospital.

In the case of a less severely ill employee whom you would rather not send home unaccompanied, a solution can be discussed with the family or the family doctor. Employers can work with their internal prevention advisor or external service for prevention and protection at work, taking into account the aforementioned recommendations, to establish their own procedure for organising transport home for employees who are taken ill at work.

What can employers do to prevent an employee who is taken ill at work from infecting colleagues?

1/ If possible, it can be useful to provide a room in which the sick person can stay while waiting for transport. It is best not to use the First Aid room.

2/ If you have surgical face masks at work, it is advisable to get the sick employee to put one on after washing or disinfecting his/her hands. If face masks are unavailable, the mouth and nose may be covered with a cloth or scarf.

3/ Ask your sick employee explicitly to respect the correct behaviour when sneezing and coughing and to wash his/her hands before leaving.

4/ It is certainly recommended to disinfect all surfaces (office, door handles, devices used, etc.) with which the sick employee has had contact. The coronavirus is neutralised by all the usual disinfectants.

What do you do with the people who have been in contact with the sick colleague?

Employees who had contact with a colleague who is now ill may continue working, provided they show no signs of illness themselves. This recommendation applies even if they had relatively close contact with a sick colleague. They must take their temperature twice a day, adhere to all recommended hygienic measures (including strict hand hygiene) and contact their general practitioner immediately if symptoms appear. They are also requested to keep their employer informed of their situation.

Which guidelines are best followed for particular risk groups, pregnant women, and/or those under the age of 18?

We now know that young people infected with the coronavirus are less often ill than adults. However, they can pass on the virus without being ill themselves. It is therefore necessary for those under 18 who have been in contact with a confirmed or probable case of coronavirus (= contact person of a confirmed case) to be kept at home in quarantine. This quarantine shall last for 14 days as from the first contact. During this period, these young people must strictly limit their social contact.

Sick adults and those under 18 who have been in contact with a confirmed or probable case of coronavirus must certainly avoid all contact with risk groups (people over 65, with severe chronic illness, with reduced immunity) and pregnant women. It is also best to ask these people to temporarily postpone any visits to places accommodating risk groups (e.g. residential care centres).

As the virus spreads further, it will become even more important to protect general risk groups as much as possible. There is a range of recommendations for risk groups: strict hand hygiene, avoid contact with sick people, avoid participation in (big) events, work from home as much as possible, avoid pubic transport, etc.

Please note: specific procedures apply for employees who work in or have contact with the healthcare sector. These can be consulted on the Sciensano website

This text was compiled on 08/03/2020, further to telephone communication with the Agentschap Zorg en Gezondheid (Care and Health Agency).

You can read more about the coronavirus and how to deal with it in our Q&A or in this blog post.