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Can my employer make me work if I test positive for Covid-19?

In March 2022, the Spanish government scrapped quarantine for those with mild or asymptomatic Covid symptoms and now masks are no longer required in most indoor situations. So what happens when you get Covid -can your employer still make you go to work?

working while ill
Woman sick with Covid-19. Photo: Bermix Studio / Unsplash

The end of most self-isolation and mask rules in Spain means that many people may now be going to work while infected with Covid-19 and putting their colleagues at risk.

Recently, there have been several reports of companies telling their employees to come into work, even if they’re testing positive for Covid, saying that if they’re well enough to work remotely, then they’re well enough to come in and work in person.

READ ALSO: How masks became an integral part of life Spain

But can your employer really make you come to work if you have Covid? What are your rights?

Of course, if you have a serious case of Covid-19, then you can get a ‘baja’ or sick note from your doctor saying you don’t have to work.

But what if your case is milder? It’s now not uncommon for doctors to give their Covid patients a ‘baja’ for just a few days while symptoms are at their worst.

However, many people are still testing positive for Covid-19 even after the worst of their symptoms have passed and are no longer eligible for a ‘baja’, meaning that they have to go to work while they still have the virus.

The Spanish government recommends that those who test positive for Covid-19 be allowed to work from home where possible.

“Teleworking or job re-adaptation is recommended to avoid interaction with vulnerable groups,” says the document from the Public Health Commission, both in the case of workers with “symptoms compatible” with Covid-19 and those who already have a positive diagnosis.

If this is the government’s recommendation, is it still possible for companies to make their employees go into work and not be allowed to work from home?

According to the General Union of Workers (UGT) “At the moment, there is no obligation to offer employees the possibility of teleworking in the legislation”.  In the event that the company does not enable this alternative, “preventive measures should be adopted such as cross-ventilation, a distance of one and a half meters, constant hygiene in common areas and providing everyone with masks”.

Ángela Domínguez, coordinator of the Vaccination Group of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology says “In principle, as in any disease, if a person is sick, it is better not to go (to work), especially in the acute phase. If you have very few symptoms or no symptoms and have tested positive, you can go, but it’s important that you wear the mask and respect the rest of the measures”.   

The Spanish government has said that it’s up to each individual company whether they want to continue using the mask or not, but has pointed out a series of factors that should be taken into account when making it, such as the possibility that employees keep a distance of 1.5 meters, the ventilation of the space or the time in which they remain in it and has stressed that the company must take into account the “opinion” of the workers through their representatives. 

The general consensus is that if you do have mild Covid symptoms and you can’t get a ‘baja’ to stay home from work, then remote working is the best option. If your company won’t let you work from home or it’s not possible, then wearing a mask at work and ensuring that the room is well ventilated is the best option to protect your colleagues.

READ ALSO – Have your say: Will you continue wearing a mask indoors in Spain?

Domínguez referred to a study by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) which calculated the time needed to become infected in a closed space without ventilation.

The analysis concluded that, in the presence of a positive, another person can become infected in 15 minutes if neither of them is wearing a mask. If you and the those you interact with use an FFP2 mask, this time can go up to as much as 25 hours.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.