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‘New normal’: Novant doctor urges businesses to reassess workplace environment

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — As businesses prepare to reopen in the coming weeks, health care professionals caution against relaxing social distancing measures and urge companies to set in place a “new normal” way of operating.

In a virtual seminar hosted by the Rowan Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of occupational medicine, provided businesses with advice and guidance on how to return to work safely as the nation works to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Primarily, Bregier encourages businesses to continue social distancing measures, beef-up cleaning of high-touch surfaces and provide resources for managing mental health and increased stress during this time.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday the state’s plan to ease stay-at-home restrictions and move into phase one of reopening businesses on Friday.

The first phase allows most businesses to open, including retail businesses that operate at 50% capacity with frequent cleaning and social distancing, and an encouragement for parks and trails to reopen. Additionally, gatherings are still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends is allowed. Certain businesses such as gyms, salons, bars and theaters will remain closed, and restaurants will continue to offer delivery and take-out services only.

“COVID-19 is still a serious threat to our state, and Phase 1 is designed to be a limited easing of restrictions that can boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” Cooper said. “This is a careful and deliberate first step, guided by the data, and North Carolinians still must use caution while this virus is circulating.”

Statewide, a total of 12,758 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 after 164,482 tests have been conducted. There have been a total of 477 deaths with 516 hospitalizations.

Rowan County health officials on Wednesday reported 428 positive cases, with 25 deaths, after 2,693 tests have been conducted. A total of 15 individuals are currently being hospitalized.

Bregier said the U.S. should expect COVID-19 to persist for at least a few more months and be mindful of that when returning to work.

“This is kind of the new normal,” he said, “that you need to continue social distancing.”

As of Wednesday, the U.S. has a total of 1.19 million positive COVID-19 cases, which is an increase of 22,303 new cases overnight. Bregier said the U.S. is seeing an average of about 20,000-30,000 in new cases each day, which is why public health officials encourage a consistent drop in cases for a long period of time before reopening more businesses and services.

Additionally, health experts across the nation are still unsure if and when to expect the peak of cases.

Bregier added that the continued rise in cases across the U.S. should serve as a warning sign that more social distancing measures should be practiced and masks should be worn, which may require businesses to reassess the workplace environment. Now is the best time to implement one-way traffic signs in stairways and staggered lunch breaks to limit traffic and congestion in the walkways and break rooms, he said.

“It’s important to remember once you put your mask on, you don’t want to touch it anymore,” he said.

Additionally, Bregier recommends using an elbow or shoulder to open doors, rid lobbies of magazines and avoid the use of vending machines as they can “be a real breeding ground for coronavirus.”

Some larger changes in the workplace Bregier recommended included modifying the workload or responsibility of high-risk employees in some way to limit their exposure to COVID-19. He also recommended requiring employees to conduct pre-shift screenings before coming to work. Screenings should go beyond temperature testing by asking questions related to COVID-19 symptoms.

He also suggested designating at least one individual to be the “COVID-19 educator” who leads by example and keeps the rest of the company informed on updated information regarding the virus.

Bregier said resources for mental health and stress management is important, and additional information about those resources can be found on the CDC and OSHA websites.

When evaluating which employees should return to work first, Bregier suggested staggered start dates while encouraging working from home as much as possible. He discourages carpooling, but said to wear masks and use hand sanitizer if ride sharing is necessary.

The CDC requires individuals who test positive, or individuals who are presumed to be positive, to self-isolate at home for 14 days. But each case of COVID-19 should be evaluated for the severity of the illness before making a decision to allow an employee to return to work, Bregier said. Businesses can use health care teams, such as Novant Health, to help make that evaluation, he said.

An attendee of the virtual seminar asked about warmer weather having an impact on the spread of COVID-19. Bregier said that health experts are anticipating warmer weather will be beneficial and “leveraged to our advantage” in mitigating the spread, but people shouldn’t expect the weather to get rid of it.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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