RESPONDING TO COVID-19 AT WORK: How to Respond to an Employee Testing Positive or Believes They Were Exposed to COVID-19

RESPONDING TO COVID-19 AT WORK: How to Respond to an Employee Testing Positive or Believes They Were Exposed to COVID-19

By Jan KoeglerProgram Manager , Public Health Emergency PreparednessSanta Barbara County Public Health Department 


Many employers are asking what to do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. As an employer, taking some time now to prepare can prevent further spread in your worksite when you have a positive employee. Here are the actions you should take:

Understand what is considered a “close contact” and be ready to identify close contacts of the employee who is positive for COVID. Close contacts will need to be sent home to quarantine to prevent further spread among employees.

As part of your COVID-19 workplace protection plan*, make sure:

  • All employees wear masks, and work at least 6 feet apart at all times, if possible.
  • Take breaks to eat in outside areas, or in a large well-ventilated indoor space, with always at least 6 feet between employees.
  • Ask employees to stay home if they have any illness symptoms, including: fever of over 100.4°F, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Make sure employees stay home if they have close contact with positive cases at home or at work
  • These actions will limit the number of potential close contacts in your workplace, and prevent the need to quarantine your employees.

Prepare in advance a list of your employees and contractors. This list will help you track the number of employees who are positive, and identify and call staff who are “close contacts”. If you have multiple positive employees you will be asked to provide the list to the Public Health Department.

Include the following information on your list of employees and contractors:

  • Names, phone numbers, and county of residence
  • Job description
  • Work location
  • Work schedule

Plan how you will clean and disinfect areas where the positive staff have worked. The CDC guidance will help you determine how to clean and disinfect your worksite, click here.

  • If you know that there are 3 or more cases in your worksite, call the Public Health Department at (805)681-5280. Three or more cases in a general worksite is considered an outbreak. The Public Health Department will provide guidance to your worksite on additional actions you need to take.

*This information is for general employers only. Health care facilities should consult the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, CDPH, or CDC for guidance for their work sites.

*All business are required to have a COVID-19 protection plan in place for their workplace. (Templates for protection plans and industry specific guidance can be found at

How do I know who is a “close contact”?

  • A close contact is anyone within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, from 48 hours before till 10 days after symptoms of the illness began.
  • For persons who test positive but have no symptoms, their contacts are anyone 2 days before their test date till 10 days after their test date.

CDC Definition of Close Contact

What if an employee tests positive what should an employer do?

Often the employer knows first when one of their employees has a positive test. This means that the immediate actions of the employer are important to preventing spread of COVID in their business.

If an employee notifies you that they tested positive,  you should take the following actions without revealing the identity of the positive employee:

  • Determine the last day the employee worked or was on site
  • Make a list of people (employees, contractors, and others) who may have been in “close contact” (within six feet for at least 15 minutes) with the employee while at work and infectious.
    • Infectious period if employee has illness symptoms= 2 days before the start of any illness symptoms and for 10 additional days
    • Infectious period if employee has no illness symptoms: 2 days before a positive test and for 10 additional days
  • Advise all close contacts in the workplace to quarantine for 14 days. Click here for Quarantine Instructions. Refer employees to testing if available at a public testing site, or to call a health care provider if they develop symptoms.
  • Provide any employees who are sent home before or during shift with information about what to expect after they go home, including instructions about possible testing, sick leave rights under federal state and local laws and company policies, and return to work requirements.
  • Employers must maintain confidentiality of employees with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection when communication with other employees as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What is the role of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department if an employee tests positive? Will the employer be contacted?

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (PHD) is also notified, usually via electronic lab report, of  COVID lab results. This electronic lab reporting might be immediate, or it could be delayed, depending on the lab used. The Public Health Department will then do the following:

  • Reach out to the individual and conduct an interview to determine who his or her contacts are, at work, home, or other locations.
  • Call the workplace and ask for a list of all contacts of the positive individual. This could be several days or longer after the interview, depending on the health department’s ability to get in touch with the positive individual.
  • Call other individuals who may have had contact with the individual while he/she was infectious and advise them to quarantine.

PHD will attempt to contact each person who may have had close contact to assess their risk for COVID-19 and provide information about staying home and the importance of getting tested.

As an employer what if I am aware the COVID 19 positive employee was in close contact with other individuals?

Close contact for COVID-19 is defined as within six feet for at least 15 minutes at a minimum the 48 hours before the individual developed symptoms.  There are a number of factors that may impact this timeline.  However, those in close contact should be directed to go home and self-quarantine for period of 14 days.  Close contacts should be tested for COIVD-19 when possible. While at home close contacts should self-monitor daily for COVID-19 symptoms.

What if an employee lives with a COIVD-19 positive individual?

Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 are considered household contacts and should not report to work. Employees should notify their supervisor and follow CDC recommended precautions.

When can employees who had COVID-19 return to work?

Note that neither a negative test for COVID-19 nor a letter from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department is required to return to work.

If you have confirmed or suspected COVID-19 and have mild to moderate symptoms, you can stop your home isolation and are no longer considered infectious when:

  • You have been symptom and fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication AND
  • At least 10 days have gone by since your symptoms first appeared.

If you tested positive for COVID-19, but have never had any symptoms, you can stop your home isolation when:

  • At least 10 days have gone by since the date of your first positive COVID-19 test

If you tested positive for COVID-19 and had severe to critical illness

  • At least 20 days have passed since symptoms first appeared AND
  • At least 24 hours have passed since last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and

When can employees who are close contacts of someone with COVID-19 return to work?

People who are close contacts at work or at home with someone with COVID-19 should stay home from work and other activities for 14 days since the last day they were in contact with the person who tested positive.

They will be considered quarantined – People in quarantine should contact their primary care provider or a community testing site to determine if they can get tested.

However, even if the test is negative they must stay quarantined. This is because the disease can develop anytime between 2 and 14 days after their last “close contact.”

If I have an employee positive for COVID -19 do I need to test all employees who may have been exposed?

Ideally employees who are close contacts should be offered testing by the employer, either through occupational medicine, the employers provider at an outpatient clinic, or through a community testing site.

Employee who are close contacts still need to quarantine after testing, and even if they test negative. The testing reflects an employee status at a single point in time, and the employee could become positive in the days after testing.

As an employer how can I help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Prepare a COVID-19 protection plan, follow industry guidance regarding operating your business and ensure that your employees are informed of what to do if they or somebody in their households are sick.

  • Maintain confidentiality of the individual who tested positive, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Ensure employees who come into contact with patrons or other employees wear masks.
  • Sharing resources on prevention and staying safe.

Should I clean and disinfect the workplace if an employee tests positive for COIVD-19?

Workplaces should be cleaned and disinfected regularly to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  If it has been less than seven days since the employee who tested positive has been in the workplace, clean and disinfect areas that were used by the employee for a long period of time as well as congregate areas such as the break room and restroom facilities.

  • Close off areas used by the person who is sick.
    • Companies do not necessarily need to close operations, if they can close off affected areas.
  • Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area.
  • Wait 24 hours before you clean or disinfect. If 24 hours is not feasible, wait as long as possible.
  • Clean and disinfect all areas used by the person who is sick, such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment like tablets, touch screens, keyboards, remote controls, and ATM machines.

Complete information can be found here.

  • Continue to identify and regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces throughout the workplace, such as doorknobs, equipment, and handrails.
  • Employees should not share headsets or other objects that may come into contact with their face, mouth, or nose.
  • Minimize sharing of other equipment between employees; for equipment that must be shared, conduct frequent cleaning between employee use.
  • Train employees on safe use of cleaners and disinfectants and provide necessary protective equipment.

Should I shut down my workplace if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

In most cases, when appropriate steps are taken quickly, there is no need to shut down the workplace.  However, your workplace or portions of your worksite may need to close to allow time for adequate cleaning.  If there is an incident with multiple positive employees, and there is evidence that appropriate COVID-19 prevention protocols are not in place per California State industry guidance, Santa Barbara County Public Health may also provide instructions to shut down.

What is the difference between isolation and quarantine?

Isolation and quarantine are public health practices used to protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.

  • Isolation separates sick people with COVID-19 from people who are not sick.
  • Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to COVID-19 to see if they become sick. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it,

Please check for updated employee guidance at: 

Jan Koegler is the Program Manager of Public Health Emergency Preparedness for Santa Barbara County Public Health Department