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Experts say people who work from home are far less likely to get COVID-19 than those who have to commute to their workplace. 10’000 Hours/Getty Images
  • A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises people to work from home if they can during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Agency officials say that’s because it appears people who go to a workplace are twice as likely to get COVID-19 than those who work from home.
  • Experts say there are a number of safety precautions you can take on the job, including mask wearing and hand sanitizing.
  • They also note that the commute can be as risky as the job itself, so precautions should be taken while riding the train or bus.

As reported COVID-19 cases continue to reach record highs heading into winter, new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that workers should be allowed to work remotely if they can.

That recommendation comes after the agency found that employed adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to report going to a workplace with other people than those who tested negative.

These results held true for both essential workers in critical infrastructure and those simply working in offices where employers have decided to resume in-person work.

“The only way to prevent infection spread in the workplace is to keep sick people away from well people,” said Murray Cohen, PhD, MPH, a retired CDC infectious disease epidemiologist and medical adviser to Wello, a company that makes temperature check devices.

“In addition to allowing off-site telecommuting, employers need to think about flexible hours that space out the number of people at work at the same time; limit congregating in snack rooms, waiting rooms, or other communal spaces in their facilities; and assuring that regular cleaning includes at least daily decontamination of high-touch and horizontal surfaces with a disinfectant listed by the [Environmental Protection Agency] as effective against coronavirus,” Cohen said.

In addition, “mask wearing should be mandatory whenever any additional worker is at a workstation, and hand sanitizing stations should be easily accessible to all workers throughout the workday,” Cohen told Healthline. “These same work rules apply to visitors, customers, delivery, and contract workers.”

While the research didn’t look specifically at the dangers involved with commuting to and from work, experts say there can be as many dangers during the commute itself as there are within the workplace.

“I suspect that the highest-risk places are those that we don’t think about,” Dr. Sharon Nachman, a leader on infectious and pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, told Healthline.

Those include touching door handles, drinking coffee near others, and not paying close attention to wearing masks correctly.

“For commuters, we need to think about being careful to not touch our faces,” she said.

“Masks will prevent inhalation of particles in the air, but touching of surfaces and then your face is another way viruses travel. So being careful and using hand sanitizer when you are in your seat should become a routine practice,” Nachman said.

The CDC findings also again raise the question of who gets to stay home and be safer than those who have to go out and comingle with other people amid a flaring pandemic.

Black Americans have been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 and are nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized with the disease as non-Hispanic white Americans.

Black Americans are also more likely to have essential worker roles in food services and public transit that don’t offer the possibility of working remotely.

“These findings highlight socioeconomic differences among participants who did and did not report teleworking before illness onset, with non-white employees and those who earn less money having less opportunity to telework,” the CDC report reads. “Sociocultural disparities and unemployment have also been observed in industries where telework options are not feasible.”

Some work really is essential, however, and if workers are going to be safe at their workplaces, experts say we may need more unified messaging for employers to follow.

“There is a lot of federal guidance available from the CDC and OSHA,” Heather Macre, a healthcare attorney at the law firm Fennemore Craig in Phoenix, Arizona, told Healthline.

“In addition, state health and labor departments have a lot of information available. However, this creates a patchwork of regulations that employers need to check frequently. It would be helpful to have one, unified federal clearinghouse with updated information,” she said.

But safety rules only work if employers enact and enforce them.

“Despite multiple complaints, I am the only person in my office who wears a mask,” said Sarah, 32, an asset manager working in commercial real estate.

She told Healthline that some aspects of her job have to be done in person, but only a small portion, and that it could be limited to essential contact.

“If it were up to me, I’d only go to the office once a week and work from home the rest of the time,” she said.

Sarah said her boss doesn’t believe that masks are effective protection against COVID-19, despite evidence to the contrary, and therefore isn’t enforcing recommended public safety guidelines.

“I feel like my boss does the bare minimum,” she said. “And I get it, everyone has to do what’s right for them. But it’s exhausting to feel like you’re the only one aware of the pandemic.”

If you commute to work or your workplace isn’t a particularly safe environment, there are still some actions you can take to mitigate your risk.

First of all, don’t go to work if you’re feeling sick, Nachman said.

“Stay home. Take a test. Allow the Department of Health to conduct contact tracing if you are infected,” she said.

There are a number of safety precautions you can take if you’re ill or even if you’re not.

“Did you wear a clean mask? Did you bring lunch and, if so, where will you be eating it? Same for snacks. If you are buying lunch, think about if you can have it delivered to you outside. If you have to go indoors, then make sure that people inside are wearing masks. Keep yours on as well,” Nachman said.

Finally, she said, if you’ve never gotten a flu shot before, this is the year to do it.

“Remember, the last thing we want is to see someone ill with two different viruses at the same time,” she said.