New CDC Guidance for Employers Reflects Evolving Knowledge of Coronavirus

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland April 5, 2020

​Open the windows. Leave contaminated areas vacant for 24 hours if you can. Wear disposable gloves and gowns. And, of course, wash your hands often.

These are among the updated guidelines posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for cleaning and disinfecting a workplace after an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Among the new tips: If a contaminated area has been closed for seven days or more, there's no need for a special cleaning.

"This is an area where the ground is shifting some as we continue to learn more about COVID-19," said Dr. Jay C. Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, on a March 30 webinar with private-sector businesses.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Similarly, health officials have made an about-face on wearing masks in public—a practice that was once discouraged but now is recommended in certain situations. A mask won't necessarily keep the wearer safe, but it may prevent the wearer from spreading the virus, said Butler, who added that mask recommendations are still being refined.

The ongoing shifts at CDC and other health agencies reflect a growing understanding of how the infection is transmitted, with its most potent phase being just before or as a person starts to show symptoms.

"We're finding that it's not uncommon to have fairly high amounts of virus present in the nose and throat before onset of symptoms," Butler said. "In fact, in people who develop symptoms, the highest amount of virus is at the time of the onset of symptoms with some decline afterwards. This may be a bit of a game-changer for us as we look forward."

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to handle communicable diseases in the workplace]

As testing becomes more accessible, public health officials are finding that many infected people have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. They may simply feel "off" for a few days or have a slightly elevated fever, Butler said. "Some of our newer learning raises the question about how much people in any public area may already be infected with COVID-19."

A few other tips he offered:

  • Serological testing of blood samples could show which people have already been infected and are presumably immune to the virus. The FDA is looking at potential serological tests, and there is some promise, Butler said, but not enough data to evaluate their effectiveness. These tests could be helpful as the nation begins to emerge from the shutdown, he said.
  • There is no evidence that COVID-19 has been or can be transmitted through the mail. "If it were an important mode of transmission, we would have seen earlier signs of it."
  • As far as what constitutes a safe distance, Butler said, there's "no magic number." Proximity should be considered on a continuum, along with the duration of contact and whether anyone is coughing or sneezing. The key is to remember that the virus spreads via respiratory droplets and to minimize exposure.
  • Remember to decontaminate any high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and handrails and sterilize pens and other items after each use by a different employee or customer.
  • Don't worry about catching the disease from food, unless you're sitting next to someone who is ill while you're eating it.

Butler recommended that all employers whose businesses are still operating prepare for a possible exposure by reviewing their corporate policies as well as state and local regulations to properly balance privacy rights with the need to notify other employees when a co-worker is confirmed to have the disease.

Provide input as the DOL develops further guidance on the FFCRA. Participate online at through April 10—an extended deadline.



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