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Monkeypox: What Does this Mean for Employers?

Five Do’s and Don’ts for Employers for Preventing the Spread of Monkeypox

Employers across the country are probably having a terrible déjà vu moment. While offices were slowly bringing back in-person work, planning conferences, and trying to regain some sense of pre-COVID-19 normalcy, news of another rare and mostly unheard-of virus began appearing in the United Kingdom.

The news followed an eerily familiar pattern. First came an isolated cluster of cases that swelled to many cases spread across the globe, including here in the United States. Then came the warning that, while it can be deadly, people should not be fearful since transmission was very difficult. Next came the news that the virus was affecting certain vulnerable populations at an alarming rate. Last but not least came the news that transmission occurs via respiratory droplets and not just skin-to-skin contact. On August 4, the current administration declared Monkeypox a national health emergency similar to several other states and the World Health Organization.

While it is true Monkeypox is far less easily transmissible than COVID-19, employers might be feeling a slight sense of alarm about how to handle another communicable disease outbreak while we are not yet finished with the last one. The answer is not an easy one, but there are some familiar tools to rely on that make this situation a little different from COVID-19.

What is Monkeypox? How is it different from COVID-19?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Monkeypox is a rare disease from the family of viruses that causes smallpox. The source of the disease remains unknown, but it has been found in animals and in humans. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, a rash, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion, muscle aches and backache, headache, and respiratory symptoms. Exposure occurs through close, personal, skin-to-skin contact, including close contact with respiratory secretions. Symptoms begin within three weeks of exposure. The illness itself typically lasts two to four weeks. It can be spread to others from the time symptoms start.

Much is still unknown about the virus, including whether asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus and how often it is spread through respiratory secretions. Most people recover fully without medical treatment. However, it can be treated with antiviral drugs and prevented by vaccinations that were developed for smallpox.

While Monkeypox is serious, there are important differences between it and COVID-19. The California Department of Public Health has created a helpful chart found here. Much of the difficulty in containing COVID-19 is due to how easily it can spread through respiratory droplets. Monkeypox respiratory droplets require individuals to be in close and prolonged face-to-face contact for it to spread. This makes Monkeypox far less contagious than COVID-19. Minimizing close and prolonged contact with individuals with symptoms and practicing good hygiene are effective ways to limit transmission.

Unlike COVID-19, wearing personal protective equipment is not required unless close contact with someone who has symptoms is not avoidable. Another important difference is that Monkeypox mutates more slowly than COVID-19. The rapid mutation of COVID-19 is also what led to the ease of transmission. The likelihood of death and severe illness from Monkeypox is also significantly lower than COVID-19.

What can and should employers do?

Despite Monkeypox’s transmission levels being low, cases are still trending higher in several parts of the country. Employers know from recent experience; it is incredibly important to keep employees healthy and communicate to avoid confusion. The good news is employers do not have to reinvent the wheel. Things are very different than March 2020, when there was little guidance to navigate all the issues that arose for the first time. Using the lessons learned from COVID-19, here are some DOs and DON’Ts to help keep up with the ever-changing news.

  1. DON’T panic!

  2. DO review and update your COVID-19 or communicable disease policy.

    Employers who created a COVID-19 policy should review it now and see if it can be revised to become a more comprehensive communicable disease policy. Check the sections on symptoms and screening to make sure it includes those which may be different from COVID-19 symptoms.

    • What are the reporting procedures for infected employees? Train employees about the symptoms and how they should not come into the workplace if they have symptoms or have had close contact with someone who does. Review the requirement on how long employees should stay away from the worksite if they are infected and what they should provide in order to re-enter.
    • What are the requirements for disease prevention in the workplace? Review and revise procedures for disinfection and how personal protective equipment will be implemented if the law requires it. Remember to regularly check CDC and local health official guidance. New York, Illinois, and California are just a few of the locations that have declared Monkeypox a public health emergency or a state of emergency.

    While there might not be specific Monkeypox guidance similar to COVID-19 there may be soon. It is important to continue checking reputable public health resources often.

  3. DO review OSHA and local occupational health and safety regulations.

    While you are reviewing and updating your COVID-19 policy, be sure to check the most recent version of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) guidance. There is no specific guidance for Monkeypox (yet), but OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance points to regulations that may apply regardless of the type of communicable disease. There are standards for the use of personal protective equipment as well as OSHA’s general duty clause requirement that employers must provide workplaces that are free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious physical harm. Remember, there are also 28 states that operate under OSHA-approved state plans. Some states may have or develop more strict requirements than OSHA. Be sure to monitor and review local requirements and revise policies as needed to address Monkeypox.

  4. DO review and update paid and unpaid leave policies.

    In the two and a half years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large amount of paid family and sick leave laws have also spread across the country. These laws allow for employees to take time off, paid or unpaid, in order to take care of a family member’s or their own medical health condition. While some of these laws started as COVID-19-related leave, many have been made permanent and apply to many medical health conditions and in public health emergencies. Leave laws have been enacted at the state, county, and local levels. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia require paid sick leave. Employers should review where their employees are located to make sure they are aware of the most recent laws and revise their leave policies if necessary.

  5. DON’T violate anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.

    There has been a lot of information in the news regarding transmission of Monkeypox occurring in men engaging in sexual activity with other men. There has also been additional coverage about Monkeypox’s origin in certain West African countries. As seen with COVID-19, there can be discriminatory actions directed toward people of certain protected classes due to a stigma attached to the virus’ origins and transmission. Employers should reinforce their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in the event an employee feels singled out due to a stigma about the virus.

Despite having a roadmap of how to tackle Monkeypox, it’s understandable to be a bit fearful of the unknown. The bad news is employers still are not able to see a light at the end of the tunnel after a grueling few years of trying to navigate a potentially life-threatening disease – only to face another one. Whether it’s Monkeypox or rising cases of polio and measles, employers need to face the reality of being prepared for more serious illnesses that could affect their employees more than the usual flu season. The good news is the past few years have been an employment law boot camp for learning about health and safety, leave laws, remote work, and accommodations. The disease might be different, but the playbook is the same.

Looking for the latest guidance from the CDC on curbing the spread of COVID-19? Check out the recent blog: CDC Updates Recommendations for Preventing the Spread of COVID-19.