What To Do When An Employee Has COVID-19 [Scripts And Templates]

Timelines: What To Do And When

If you’re here, you likely just received terrible news — an employee has a positive COVID-19 test result. 

You need to know what to do to protect not just your employees and customers, but also your business and public health. The quicker you respond, the more likely the positive result.

This guide will help your business respond to either of the following scenarios:

1. When an employee has COVID-19 symptoms (listed below) within 48 hours of being at work

COVID-19 Symptoms

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

2. When an employee has tested positive within 48 hours of being at work, even if they haven’t had any symptoms. 

Note: If you’re concerned about an employee whose family member has tested positive, we recommend following this guide created by the Napa County Public Health Department. It will help you determine whether you should treat them as a positive case, or what to do if they’re part of critical infrastructure.

This guide is not the best source for healthcare facilities, overnight facilities, or childcare facilities. The best recommendation for those businesses is to follow CDC guidelines available at cdc.gov. We’re working on streamlining these guides as well. 

Thousand of other small businesses across the United States (and the world) have already encountered this exact situation.

We’re here to guide you step-by-step on how to respond by streamlining the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommendations so you know exactly what to do and when. 

This guide will tell you what to do the moment you find out about a COVID-19 infection until they’re healthy again. Our job is to make your life easier so you can get through it with fewer headaches, including templates you can take and use to communicate with employees (and even the media). 

Here’s how we recommend you spend the next 72 hours:

Immediately: Get care for anyone who needs it

First 24-48 hours: Stop The Spread

  • Perform a risk-assessment.
  • Isolate highly exposed employees
  • Contact local health officials
  • Begin decontamination

48-72 hours: Make A Plan & Communicate It

  • Determine how to operate safely
  • Communicate to employees
  • Determine if and how to communicate to customers and the press

72+ hours and beyond: Prevention

Time is of the essence. Let’s get started.

Immediately: Care For Those Who Need It

Care for and address the employee who has tested positive (or has shown symptoms).

When your employee tells you they have symptoms (or have a positive test for the coronavirus disease, even without symptoms), chances are they’ll be anxious about what will happen to their health or if they’ve spread COVID-19 to others. 

The best thing to do immediately is to show empathy and support. Give your employee clear expectations of what will happen next. They’ll need to remain away from work for a period of time. Be prepared to communicate this upfront.

Here’s a template with talking points for responding when you first learn an employee has COVID-19: 

Critical Points To Responding To An Employee When They Have COVID-19

Empathy: I know this must be scary for you. 
Support: We’re here for you. We understand you’re going to need to be away from work for a while. The most important thing is to keep you and the team healthy. 
Clear Expectations:

  • You’ll need to isolate for a while. At least ten days from your test date, or ten days plus 24 hours after your fever and symptom-free without fever medication. I’ll send you more information about this time period.
  • We’ll also need you to help us understand who you’ve been in close contact with and where you’ve been at work so we can try to minimize the risk for others. Let me know when you’re ready and able to talk more about this and answer questions.
  • We’re required to notify other employees who have been in contact, but we will keep your identity private.
  • It is up to you whether or not you share your COVID-19 status with others. If you decide to share that information, please let whoever you share it with at work know they can contact us if they have any questions and that we’re working on it immediately.

Then, take action to stop the spread as quickly as possible.

If the worker is at work when symptoms arise (or they test positive), send the worker home immediately and instruct them to isolate.

When both of these criteria are met, your employee can safely return to work:

  • If asymptomatic: instruct them to isolate for ten days from the date they tested positive.
  • If symptomatic: Instruct them to isolate for at least ten days AND continue isolating until they’ve been a full 24 hours without a fever (without the use of fever-reducing medication), and all other symptoms are resolved (whichever is longer).

CDC Handout To Give Employees Who Are Sick Or Test Positive For COVID-19

Within 0-6 Hours: Stop The Spread

Once the employee with symptoms or a confirmed case of COVID-19 is isolated, it’s essential to minimize the exposure to other employees and customers.

Connect with your HR or COVID support team to perform a COVID-19 exposure risk assessment.

After the employee with a case of COVID-19 is isolated and asked to self-monitor, you’ll also need to understand the risk of COVID-19 exposure to other employees and customers.

Some local health departments will require you to provide information about close contacts. Even when a department of health official doesn’t require specific contact tracing data, knowing where there’s been close contact, and potential exposure to COVID-19 will help you keep your business thriving.

If you have a COVID-19 response team or manager, contact them now to have them help you navigate:

  • Contract tracing at work
  • The families first coronavirus response act and how it impacts paid sick leave
  • The communication process to the employee and others at work
  • They can also help you determine if telework or remote-work is an option or appropriate for the employee.

If you don’t have a dedicated COVID-19 support team yet (as most small businesses don’t), connect with the HR manager or person who is most directly involved with employees to understand these facets of COVID, starting most importantly with contact tracing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed a worksheet to identify who else may have been exposed.

Guide For Identifying Close Contacts Of The Sick Employee.

Use this worksheet with your HR manager and the sick employee when possible to identify close contacts who are at risk of exposure to COVID-19.CDC’s Investigating And Responding To COVID-19 Interview Worksheet.

Begin working on identifying exposure as soon as possible.

If the employee who tested positive is feeling well enough to participate, ask them to help you via the phone once they’re isolated.

Note: While you’re gathering this information, it’s important to follow healthy privacy laws and regulations. 

Check with your local authorities, but at the very least to comply with HIPPA

  • Only ask about work-related contacts.
  • You cannot reveal the identity of who is sick (or the medical conditions or medical information for any employee).

We’ll share how to tell employees they’ve been exposed soon.

Follow up with your sick or COVID-19 positive employee in writing.

After having a conversation with the sick employee and identifying any contacts or locations where there’s a risk of exposure to others, we recommend following up with written communication.

Here’s a sample email to send to the employee who has tested positive or has symptoms of COVID-19. The bracketed text is an opportunity for you to adjust to the specifics of your situation.

[Employee Name], 

Thanks for talking with us today. [We’re hoping you recover quickly and feel better soon! / We’re hoping you continue to feel healthy and symptom-free.]

We have a few things to follow up on about your isolation period:

FirstPlease review and follow these CDC guidelines on isolation.

These guidelines include when to seek out your healthcare provider. 

Second: If you haven’t already, please contact the local health department. 
Give them the best information you have as quickly as possible to help us contact others and prevent spread.

If you think of any other possible contacts at work, please notify us immediately. 

Stay safe and well, 

[Your name]

Contact your local health officials.

Each state, county, and community has its own health laws regarding COVID-19.

Use this tool to find and contact your local health department to see what additional measures are required of businesses in your area. 

Local public health authorities will be in the best position to help you determine which regulations are in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 at your worksite. 

Notify all close contacts of the employee who has COVID-19

Stopping the spread means notifying anyone at work who has been in close contact with the employee who has COVID-19. 

According to the CDC, close contact is “anyone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.”

When you notify close contacts, it’s best to do it over the phone or video chat so you can answer their questions directly. If that’s not possible, an email is best with the subject “Important: COVID-19 Action Required”. Speed is important in delivering this message so you can quickly stop the spread of the virus. 

When you contact them, the message will be the same. 

Here’s what we recommend saying.

What To Say When You Notify Close Contacts Of A Sick Employee That They’re At Risk Of Exposure To COVID-19:

  • Someone in our workplace has [tested positive for COVID-19/ shown symptoms of COVID-19].
  • They identified you as a close contact, according to the CDC definition.
  • We know this might be scary, and we’re here to support you.
  • If you are at work when you get this: please leave quickly while maintaining physical distancing and best COVID-19 practices.
  • Once you get home, find a place to self-isolate.
  • Self-monitor for symptoms, and please be in touch with your healthcare provider.
  • Let us know how we can support you during this time.

Disinfect areas the sick employee (and any of their close contact) have been within the past 48 hours to stop the spread.

To reduce transmission as quickly as possible, it’s essential to properly clean and disinfect all of the areas where a sick employee or their close contacts have been. While most businesses have already developed a disinfecting system during the coronavirus pandemic, follow these extra precautions when you have known exposure to COVID-19.

  • If possible, it’s best to wait 24 hours to clean areas where sick or potentially exposed employees have been. Waiting allows potential viral particles in aerosols or droplets from sneezes or talking to settle.
  • If waiting 24 hours isn’t possible, wait as long as you can.
  • Although the risk to cleaning personnel is low, ensure they have the proper PPE like gloves and face masks.
  • Follow CDC guidelines for disinfecting here.

COVID-19 Disinfecting Checklist

Follow the Centers For Disease Control And Protection guidelines to clean the following items:


  • Wait for a 24-hour period of time (or as long as possible)
  • Gather soap and water: (Always clean with soap and water first, and then disinfectant.)
  • Gather a “List N: EPA Approved Disinfectant for use against SARs-CoV-2.”
  • Wear the proper personal protective equipment for cleaning like disposable gloves and consider eye protection for potential splash hazards.
  • We always recommend the use of a good facemask while in a work environment.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation

Most Highly Touched Surfaces: 

  • Tables
  • Doorknobs
  • Light switches
  • Countertops
  • Handles
  • Desks
  • Phones
  • Keyboards
  • Toilets
  • Faucets
  • Sinks
  • Registers
  • Point of sales systems
  • Cabinet openers
  • Drawers

Soft Surfaces: 

  • Carpeted floors
  • Rugs
  • Drapes
  • Furniture (like sofas and fabric seats)
  • Towels and other launderable items.

Hard Surfaces: 

  • Floors
  • Windows
  • Other Hard Surfaces (Monitors, Appliances, Etc.)

24-48 Hours After Diagnosis: Make A Plan & Communicate It

Once you’ve isolated the employee, traced and notified contacts, and begun disinfecting the areas where there’s a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, it’s time to make a plan on when and how to reopen and how to prevent spread from happening in the future.

Make A Plan To Reopen

The CDC has created a comprehensive checklist for monitoring employee health and reopening as safely as possible.

Start by filling out the checklist and addressing any overlooked areas in your COVID-19 response. 

Determine If And How You’ll Communicate To The Public And Customers 

This step isn’t always necessary, but it’s a best practice to know how you’ll deal with publicity ahead of time.

  • If there’s no risk to customers or other employees: You generally do not need a communication plan for the public if an employee contracted COVID-19 outside of work and has not been at work since they contracted it or tested positive. If you’re contacted by media looking for a response, however, here’s a simple templated reply that you can edit and tailor to your needs:
We are aware that an employee, unfortunately, contracted COVID-19. Contraction happened outside of work, and they have not been to work and have not exposed other employees or customers since they’ve become infected.

We’ve been following local guidelines and working with the local health department to keep everyone safe. 

There’s no risk to the public or our other employees. 

We’re taking the health of our staff and customers very seriously and being proactive to combat COVID-19. 

If anyone has any questions regarding our policies or practices, they’re welcome to contact us at _______________. 
  • If there is possible exposure to other employees or customers: Businesses that have been proactive about communicating what happened, how, taking responsibility, and communicating what they’re doing have fared better with customers than businesses who have outbreaks and the media makes a statement first.

To this effect, we recommend preparing a statement and placing it on social media or a company website preemptively. 

Here’s what we recommend, including:

  • When you found out
  • Some details about what happened
  • What you’ve done to address it
  • The plan you have in place moving forward

Here’s an excellent example from a grocery store in a smaller town:

 Example Statement To Press

“Late last week, we were informed that [#] employees had tested positive for COVID-19. 
[Details] Today, we learned that an employee in our deli kitchen has also tested positive. To our knowledge, this case was not contracted at the store and was due to community spread outside the workplace.
We continue to work closely with the [Local Health Department] to respond to these cases. At first notice of a positive test, we have immediately launched our own contact tracing, rapidly identifying and notifying close contacts and ensuring those individuals are not in the workplace and receive the follow-up attention and support they need. 
A notification was sent out promptly to all [Company] employees regarding the positive cases among their coworkers.
We've also moved swiftly to identify areas of the store of concern and determine appropriate steps. 
The rigorous routine cleaning and sanitation practices we already have in place provide a good foundation.
In addition, our deli café and kitchen are currently undergoing thorough disinfection. 
Deli production has been temporarily halted to allow us to focus on this effort. Shelves may be a little sparse for a few days.

Beyond 72+ Hours: Focus Again On Prevention

You’ve addressed the immediate needs. Now, to keep your employees, customers, and business healthy and thriving during COVID-19, we recommend double-checking your prevention measures and keeping employees educated about COVID-19. 

Maintain Social Distancing Of At Least Six Feet

Ensure your workspaces, stores, and offices allow workers and customers to maintain a distance of six feet whenever possible. 

Provide Your Employees Respirator Masks That Protect Them

Not all masks are created equal. Some masks only prevent other people and do very little for the wearer. 

Any face covering worn over the mouth and nose is better than nothing, but it doesn’t protect your employees — or your business — from being the source of an outbreak. 

Only a non-valved respirator mask truly protects the wearer. 

There are currently no shortages of these masks, and they’re incredibly affordable compared to needing to shut down a business or the devastating human impacts from an outbreak.

Anytime an employee must come into physical contact with another employee or a customer, they should be provided the proper respiratory protection. 

See our FAQ guide to facemasks and face coverings here. 

If you just want the quick option: shop respirator masks here. 

Make Good Handwashing Practices Mandatory

Food industry workers are already familiar with many OSHA and health department rules around handwashing, but offices aren’t. 

Place handwashing signs in washrooms and place paper towels within the doorknobs’ reach, so hands are kept clean when exiting the restroom. (Make sure there’s a waste bin on the other side of bathroom doors to deposit paper towels. Otherwise, employees aren’t as likely to use the proper protocol.) 

Make Hand Sanitizer Readily Available

Place hand sanitizer at entrances, exits, in kitchen spaces, and high-traffic areas. 

Wherever And Whenever Possible, Increase Ventilation.

Ventilation can be improved by opening windows to outside areas, keeping cooling and heating systems running, and ensuring that air filters for HVAC systems have HEPA filters. 

The novel coronavirus tests our preparedness when an employee shows up with symptoms or a positive diagnosis, but it doesn’t have to be the end of a healthy thriving business. 

By following CDC and FDA guidelines, acting quickly, working with your local health department, following proper social distancing and prevention measures — businesses can stay healthy, open, and thrive. 

For additional information, including industry-specific guides, go to www.cdc.gov.

Cover photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash.