Responding to COVID cases in the workplace – with Fiona Jones

With COVID-19 cases now in the thousands across New Zealand, the likelihood of a staff member testing positive is no longer an if, but a when.

We talk to Aurecon Health and Safety Manager Fiona Jones about the challenges she faced when a staff member recently tested positive.

A positive COVID-19 result can create several challenges. There’s the obvious toll on the infected person’s physical and mental health, and that of their close contacts both in and outside the workplace. And then there’s the knock-on effect of staff being absent because of sickness and self-isolation. 

While some of the administrative responsibility for contact tracing has shifted in Phase 2 of the government’s response plan, having a robust system helps businesses direct energy where it’s needed – ensuring the wellbeing of their staff and the business.

Aurecon recently had its first confirmed COVID-19 case at a New Zealand office.

“We were really fortunate as the person had done everything right,” says Fiona Jones, Aurecon’s Health and Safety Manager.

“From scanning in everywhere they went to always wearing a mask in the office – following not only government protocols but also Aurecon’s health and safety procedures.”

This meant Fiona’s team were able to quickly and accurately identify others who may have been exposed, and the close contact list was relatively small. 

“However, the timeline of the process was challenging. By the time the person felt sick and had the test, then got the positive result, they had been in the office for three days, including a visit to a site. This meant we had a long exposure period to track and were under immense time pressure to do so.

“We had a plan in place and the plan worked. But we still learnt some things along the way.”


Three tips for managing your COVID-19 response


Put people first

“It might seem obvious, but make sure you stay in close contact with the human being at the centre of it all – the person who has tested positive,” Fiona says.

Because Aurecon’s first case was discovered in Phase 1 of the national Omicron response, the administrative requirements by the Public Health Services Contact Tracing Team were significant.

“It took us a moment to realise that all the form filling in had taken our focus away from the person truly affected. Pausing the rush to get information and taking the time to ask them how they were feeling and reassuring them they had done everything right was the best and most important thing we did.

“It seems so obvious in hindsight, but in the heat of the moment on a Friday afternoon, as we worked to make sure we had identified and communicated with everyone affected, it wasn’t.”

Aside from close contacts, Fiona wasn’t expecting casual contacts to be quite so affected.

“Reach out to casual contacts too – they struggle more than you might think as they are living with the uncertainty that they may have been exposed but aren’t required to do anything differently.”

Another challenge can be contacting external contacts, Fiona says, as you might be worried about the stigma of having exposed clients to the virus.

“My advice would be to take the same approach as you would with staff members – be honest and transparent. It can seem daunting, but we only received compassionate responses.”

This was the case internally at Aurecon too.

“There is always some anxiety that people will react negatively towards the initial case, but our experience was that people were just concerned for each other, their colleagues and friends. The person who tested positive was concerned they had passed it on, and the contacts were mainly just concerned for the person’s wellbeing.”

Sort out your systems

For Fiona, the key to managing the COVID-19 response efficiently is to minimise the administrative burden so she and her team can focus on the people, rather than the processes. 

By now most people will have a contact tracing plan in place for Omicron, but there are other ways to keep track of and support people as they isolate at home, Fiona says. 

“We’ve set up an online system where people fill in a form with their testing information and all the timelines associated with that. It means we’re not chasing email trails to figure out who is at what stage of isolation.

“This gives us more capacity to quickly check and then reach out to close contacts – check how they are feeling and whether they have the support they need.”

Aurecon has set up another online initiative using similar technology to support their staff members – and help them support each other – during the next phase of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I’ve been so impressed with our people wanting to help each other out. Aurecon Neighbours allows them to connect people who are isolating with people in the same neighbourhood wanting to help.

“We’re trying to minimise people’s need to travel so this allows others to do things like safely drop off groceries to those isolating or just say hi and check in on them from afar.”

RATS – consider the impact of a positive test  

There has been much discussion of the use of rapid antigen tests (RATs) as a tool for critical workers – who have come into contact with a COVID-19 case – to receive an exemption from isolation requirements.

In Phase 2, the isolation period for contacts has been reduced but if you are considering using RATs either to receive an exemption or test proactively, consider where and when your staff members take the test.

“We’ve been using RATs at Aurecon for various purposes - including travel - and we’re considering introducing them more broadly as a surveillance tool,” says Fiona.

“The question is: what do you do if someone tests positive outside your office building? And how do you protect the person providing or supervising the test? What happens if the person has arrived via public transport?

“Because this can cause issues, we’ve decided to ask people to take the test at home, and supervise this via a Teams meeting. This eliminates the risk to the person supervising and makes sure that if the person were to test positive, they are in the right place already.” 

Connect with Fiona Jones on LinkedIn


Useful links: 

Testing and returning to work during Omicron

Rapid antigen testing: Guidance for critical workers 

Do you have a story to share about dealing with COVID-19 in your workplace? Email us at [email protected]