Measles cases are on the rise.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1 of this year, nearly 1,200 cases of measles were confirmed in 28 states, including Missouri.
It is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 — and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.
To put it in perspective, in 2018 there were 372 cases, less than one-third of the reported cases in the first seven months of 2019. And both are up from 2017, when 120 cases were reported.
Given the recent jump in cases, measles has been a top concern for health care providers across the nation, said Dr. Luther Rhodes, chief of infectious disease for Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania.
“Nobody knows how far this will go,” he said.
Most of the attention has focused on schools as administrators and public health officials debate vaccination and attendance policies for a disease that is considered highly contagious.
But, Rhodes said, it’s an issue that employers should be thinking about, too.
“We can’t ignore it,” Rhodes said. “Employers need to be prepared how to handle the situation if that occurs.”
Rhodes said if an employee contracts measles, it could be a major disruption to an organization.
According to the CDC, the measles virus is so contagious that if one person gets the virus, nine out of 10 people exposed to that person will contract the virus if they are not protected.
And while most workers should be protected by the vaccinations they received as children, not everyone is vaccinated — and the vaccinations may not protect everyone who got them.
Because of the length of the incubation period for measles virus, a person who has been exposed to it should stay at home for at least two weeks to prevent transmission. If the virus spreads to multiple employees, it could mean a workplace shutdown.
That’s why Rhodes said that even though the chance of measles making it into a local workplace is fairly remote, plans need to be in place to prevent a measles outbreak and to respond if one does occur.
What to watch for
One of the most essential steps for employers is to be able to identify an employee with measles symptoms.
An employer should keep that person away from other employees and make sure the employee gets medical attention. The employee should not return to work until cleared by a health care professional.
Measles symptoms resemble those of a typical virus, Rhodes said.
They begin with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat, followed by a rash that spreads over the body.
The virus jumps from person to person through coughing and sneezing.
One thing an employer shouldn’t do, though, is “play doctor,” said Jacob Sitman, chair of the employment law and labor relations group at the law firm Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.
He said an employer always should make sure health care professionals are consulted.
He points to a number of legal issues to consider in such a situation.
He said the identity of the person with, or suspected of having, measles should be protected. That person has a right to privacy.
But other employees also need to know a risk exists.
The national Society for Human Resources Management said if measles is suspected in an employee, an employer should inform staff about how and where to get vaccinations and remind workers that their relatives may have been indirectly exposed.
Being prepared is the best course of action, said Rhodes. He said companies should review health care policies before a crisis occurs.
Vaccinations are another way a company can protect itself. A common vaccine covers an individual for measles, mumps and rubella virus.
If there is a concern, a company can encourage employees to be tested to determine if they are immune and to receive vaccinations if they aren’t.
Still, Sitman cautioned that with few exceptions, such as in health care, most employers are not allowed to require testing or vaccinations for measles or other infectious diseases.
Sitman said an employer is obligated under U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules to maintain employee health and safety, so managing any kind of infectious-disease outbreak, such as measles, is part of an employer’s duty.
“There’s always a contagious disease that comes up that makes us review our policies. This should be a reminder,” Sitman said. “Getting prepared and getting somewhat educated on the matter will help the situation.”