Potential exposure to COVID-19

Guidance for employees after potential exposure to COVID-19

What if I’ve been in contact with a colleague who’s tested positive for
COVID-19?

We know that we can catch COVID-19 from anyone else who has the virus and we also know that the virus spreads mostly via droplets from the nose or mouth, which can be expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even by talking.

Because the droplets are quite heavy, they’re not thought to travel far from the carrier, unless forcibly ejected via a sneeze. If you breathe in the droplets or touch a surface that they’ve landed upon and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can also catch the virus.

The risk of transmission between people in this way is what’s behind the advice to maintain social distance as best we can. It’s also what’s behind the advice to wash your hands regularly, or use a hand sanitiser, because you can also pick up the virus from door handles, desks, computer keyboards or any surface that you touch.

If pragmatic steps are taken to keep social distance and good hand hygiene, then the risk of transmission between colleagues is quite low. If you have a colleague who is coughing or sneezing then the risks of transmission do rise. If we all follow the same steps, the chain of transmission can be broken quite easily.

So, even if you’ve been in contact with a colleague who subsequently tests positive, you’re at a fairly low risk of transmission, as long as you’ve been taking sensible precautions. If you haven’t been taking precautions, you’re at a greater risk.

Although your employer may choose to provide COVID-19 tests, even if you don’t have symptoms, most advice at the moment suggests that it’s only really worth getting tested if you have symptoms (a cough, fever, loss of
sense of taste/smell etc).

I’ve been exposed to a colleague with COVID-19, what should I do to
protect my family?

There’s very little evidence to suggest that following social distancing rules at home is needed. This is also the advice being given to NHS and frontline care workers, who are at a higher risk of exposure from COVID-19 than most people.

There is some evidence that the virus can remain live on clothing for about a day, so it’s worth washing any clothes you wear to work as soon as you get home, if you’ve had a potential exposure to the virus. It’s best to wash the clothes separately from any other laundry and to do so on a high temperature.

If you wash your hands regularly, or use a hand sanitiser, and take the appropriate precautions to keep apart from other people, the risk of bringing the virus into your house is fairly low.

Should I get tested because of a potential exposure, even if I have no symptoms?

Although your employer may choose to make testing available to you, there is little evidence to suggest it’s worthwhile for those who don’t have any symptoms.

The accuracy of the tests can depend on many factors, such as the time between infection and testing, or the amount of virus in your body. It’s possible for the tests to miss the presence of the virus if there’s only a very small amount in your body – below the detection rate – which is then called a ‘false negative’.

If there’s enough virus present in your body at the point the test is taken, which isn’t usually the case in the first few days after potential infection, then a positive result is given. Most evidence so far indicates a peak in the amount of virus around the time that symptoms start, with a rapid decline in the accuracy of the swab test after that point.

For the vast majority of people, it’s highly unlikely a swab test will give a positive result for people who don’t have any symptoms. That, in turn, could give false reassurance to people, which is less than helpful.

Being aware of any symptoms, no matter how mild, is a key step. If you do have any symptoms, it’s important to let your manager or HR team know and to stay at home for 7 days. You can get tested via the NHS is you
have symptoms, which is easy to arrange via the gov.uk website.

What about the risks before symptoms present?

There is little good evidence currently available about the risks or acquiring or transmitting the virus if you don’t have symptoms. We do know that transmission rates are much lower when social distancing and good hand hygiene are practised carefully. Self-isolating when symptoms appear is one of the most important steps in breaking the chains of transmission.

Please visit the detailed guidance page on our main website if you have an employee health issue that needs support or guidance.