This is the account of a NSW fabricator who recently had an employee test positive to COVID-19.
When our region’s outbreak started, we upped our response and started doing daily COVID alerts in the morning to keep everyone up to date and whenever they might be required through the day. At these we let everyone know the latest exposure sites, and any updates they need to know about. I feel that ensuring we had open and up to date communication with our employees ensured a swift response from them when they needed to step up. We also had implemented split lunch breaks, we supplied and strongly enforced mask wearing, made sure that hand sanitiser was readily available, and we also ensured we checked everyone’s QR code check in at multiple times during the day to ensure we were complying with the current legislation.
Thankfully, our employee came to us on a Friday at 11.30am to advise that he had been in contact with a person who was diagnosed COVID positive.
After taking some notes and gaining a proper understanding of the level of exposure and risk, we directed the employee to leave site and immediately get tested. We also made the prompt decision to close the plant immediately and send all staff for testing and into isolation until further notice.
I was working offsite at the time and had conducted the interview over the phone and immediately jumped in the car to head to site. On the way my first call was to the amazing Kersten and Nikita at the FTMA. Kersten has been relentless in keeping us up to date with the latest COVID news and I knew that she would know what to do. I travelled my standard 15 minutes’ drive to work and by the time I sat down at my desk I had a letter in my inbox from Kersten that I was able to pop straight on to our letter head and distribute to staff to advise them of the situation at hand and our response (an example of this letter is below). While I was doing this, I had our supervisors go to all staff and get their most up to date mobile numbers as this would be a vital way to communicate with them in the coming days.
During my time at the office, I called the National COVID hotline who in turn directed me to the NSW COVID tracing line to seek their advice, and comforting to know, they believed we were doing the right thing.
So, we informed the employees, directed them all to leave work immediately and go straight to a testing location and straight home. Once I got home that afternoon, I started working on a spreadsheet (example below) gathering as much data as I possibly could that I thought would be relevant to the incident in relation to our employees, so I had one point of reference going forward. Along with this, I also contacted all of our suppliers that had visited our site over the past week of the evolving situation and recommended that they be tested.
It was more difficult than we expected though, as we were having visitors to the business sign in using the Governments QR Code, which we cannot access.
This made it clear to us that we not only need to do the Governments QR Code in future but have everyone sign in manually as well.
Of course, this comes with its own problems, and we will have to set up a set of clean pens to be used once and put into the dirty pen pile and have them cleaned at the end of the day (sample workplace attendance register below).
That evening, Kersten & Nikita created a flow chart (below) showing the steps we would need to take if the worker tested negative or positive which was easy to understand and eased my mind on a Friday evening.
The next day while we were all eagerly awaiting our results, I wanted to touch base with the employees to keep them updated as I know they would all be wanting to know what was happening, but I also wanted to assure them that this was an evolving situation and remind them of the importance of staying in isolation until we knew more.
I uploaded all the employee numbers, I created contact groups for those who were on site on particular days and later a group for close contacts. These came in so handy throughout the process as different groups of people needed different information and I could easily select the groups I needed before sending an SMS.
Early Saturday morning I contacted the staff to provide an update, I asked them all to provide me with the details of when and where they were tested, and to get them to send me their results when they got them. I also used the opportunity to ask all employees of their vaccination status which I recorded on the spreadsheet as well.
Our situation escalated at lunchtime on the Saturday, when I was informed by the employee that his partner had contracted COVID. It was at this point that I knew there was a 99.9% chance our employee would be informing me that they were in fact COVID positive as well.
I then made numerous phone calls again to the NSW COVID tracing line and they were still unable to provide much information, besides reassurance that we were doing all we could at this stage. All the while we were still in contact with Kersten almost hourly who was amazing providing some much-needed reassurance.
Due to the uncertainty of when we would be able to get back to work, I emailed all our clients that had upcoming jobs booked in for the week to advising of the situation at hand, and that I would obviously be in contact as soon as I could. They were all very understanding.
D-day arrived. It was inevitable and I was edgy every time the phone rang, but finally around 11am the call came to advise that the employee was COVID positive.
It was at this point I felt like I knew what I was dealing with and might be able to get some clearer answers.
So, I started a long day of calls, I had so many questions! Who is a close contact? What dates and time do we need to advise people from? What makes a close contact? The worker worked in one of our factories, so what about our office staff? I started again with the COVID tracing line. They were helpful, they advised that we would be contacted by our local Public Health Unit (PHU), who would do a risk assessment and be able to advise who was a close and casual contact. They said that the PHU would also advise us of the cleaning protocols and any other requirements.
Before I was given the information on cleaning from PHU, I had started researching companies and this is where Jennifer from Programmed Timber Supplies came in handy, as she gave me some contacts to try. We ended up finding out that there was no requirement for us to employee professional deep cleaners, which was good, as they ranged from $5,000 to $15,000, and availability was scarce due to the outbreak and extent of site being listed by the minute.
One of the main questions I had was if we would be able to enter the site at all and how we can identify those who could go to site, but they advised at this time, due to the case being the Delta variant, anyone who had been onsite in the last 5 days would be considered a close contact until further notice. This was a big blow that we didn’t expect, but it was an answer at least and we were no longer in limbo.
I was becoming inpatient, so I called the local PHU directly to try and get a jump start on things, as I was keen to be able to provide some more reassurance for the staff. The PHU were great, but not very helpful, their hands were tied until such point as we were contacted, they also said we would be handled by the Ministry of Health as we were a large employer. That was alright, so I called them, and it became a game of back and forth, being directed between the Ministry of Health and the PHU. I worked out I wasn’t going to get any clear answers at 3pm on a Sunday, so decided to leave it until Monday. I sent out the communication to our staff advising them of the developments, encouraging them to send through their results and stay home!
Monday got off to a slow start but was busy, nonetheless. I spent the morning contacting cleaning companies and getting quotes for deep cleans, chasing up the staff’s initial test results and working out who has been in direct contact with the positive employee so that we could be thoroughly prepared.
At lunchtime we got the call we were waiting for. We were contacted by the NSW Health Public Health Unit.
They were fabulous, they provided all the answers to my mountain on questions, they were very thorough and understanding. They went through the whole process of what was next, and I was so glad that I was prepared with my spreadsheet, which made it much easier. They emailed through the cleaning guidelines, fact sheets for all employees, close and casual contacts and advise how we were to perform the risk assessment. Within the email was also the mandated exposure dates and times which became vital to identifying and sorting our employees into close and casual contacts.
I had to prepare documents for each day advising who was on site at the set times and further breakdown into who had contact with the case on each day. I sent this back in a timely fashion to which they were very pleased and from here they would be sending out the SMS alerts to the employees. On the call they also advised that I could contact the employees that I had categorised of the outcome, which I did along with providing links to the fact sheets that had given me.
Once we were able to identify close contacts, we could finally put in a game plan for a return to work.
This meant that once our casual contacts were tested again on day 5, being the following Wednesday, they were able to return to work once a negative test result was given. This meant that based on the result return rate, we would be back up and running by Friday at the earliest, well half of the factory anyway. The remainder of the factory which included the close contacts would then be in isolation for 14 days and would not be back on site until the following Monday.
From here, I was able to start making plans with customers to start getting deliveries happening as early as Wednesday due to our drivers not being exposed and working at 50% production at least, from possibly Friday at the earliest. We could put into action a cleaning plan to ensure the site was cleaned before everyone returned and started working away again.
Tuesday was a quiet day, spent mostly touching base with a variety of staff and checking on their welfare. Wednesday came and I took the opportunity to touch base with all the casual contacts and advise that this was the day to get tested. The results didn’t start coming in until Thursday morning and I was continually updating the spreadsheet for record keeping purposes of all test results. We were so blessed to even have some staff get results early and come in for the half day Thursday to try and catch up, it was just amazing seeing their dedication and support through the whole process. We had almost all the results by Thursday night and most staff, besides close contacts back onsite Friday, meaning we only lost 5 and a half days.
The next few days were pretty standard. I maintained contact with the close contacts ensuring they were in good spirits and providing any support they needed. In conjunction with Kersten, we researched the financial support available to the employees required to isolate, gathering information and distributing it to them and ensuring they could access it.
It was then that we found an issue with the SMS notifications coming from NSW Health, no one had received them yet and they needed these to access Government support.
At this point I got in contact with NSW Health, who asked for them to be resent. This was great, as everyone received their messages the next morning. The close contacts were also all personally contacted by NSW Health and advised of the requirements for their isolation.
However, this did return a few mixed scenarios. Half were told to test on day 5-7 and day 12, the other half were told they only needed to test on day 12, due to changes regarding the day 5-7 test where people had been transmitting at this time, they removed the requirement. This made me a little uneasy, as it was nice to know that even after the initial test, the follow up test was also negative, but we must follow the health advice we are given, even if it is conflicting, right!?
After being a little panicked about the close contacts that hadn’t been tested mid isolation, the next milestone on the COVID rollercoaster was the second Wednesday after we closed down, which was this week. This was the day the close contacts needed to have their final test, Day 12, and once they got a negative result, they are able to come out of isolation on Day 14. Much to my relief I have received two thirds of the results back and I am happy to say that they are all negative and I eagerly await the final results in the next few hours.
The whole incident has been a massive learning curve, not only for us as an employer, but also our employees. My personal belief is that the longer this pandemic is in the community, the more complacent everyone is getting. They are taking more risks and more frequently ignoring the health advice.
But in saying that, given the positive outcome from our firsthand experience, I feel that the constant and consistent information supplied to us by Kersten and the FTMA has been invaluable. We have been able to implement a strong COVID plan and ensure that we have measures in place that have mitigated our risk exposure.
Resources used in this case: