Guest column

Expert shares advice and tools for Houston companies returning to their office space

More and more Houston companies are having employees return to the office, but business leaders should take advantage of new tools and best practices. Getty Images

As states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders and communities plan for the reopening of local economies, many may be returning to work and engaging in more regular social activity. While the return to some semblance of normalcy may come as a relief, questions about one's own health or the health of family members may remain.

Upon returning to work, people should continue to be smart and cautious while interacting with others. Following CDC guidelines and maintaining social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and frequently sanitizing common areas or high-contact items, including doorknobs, hand railings and communal phones and printers, can be good preventive measures to help mitigate COVID-19 health risks.

Business associations, health systems, and governments are crafting guidelines to help mitigate risks associated with reopening communities, but additional resources may be available to help individuals navigate their own physical and mental health during this transition period.

Many may continue to have questions related to potential COVID-19 symptoms. To help, UnitedHealthcare provides an online COVID-19 symptom self-checker to help people gauge their symptoms and consider what may be the next steps for care. The symptom self-checker is at no additional cost for people to access, and users of the self-checker tool will be asked to answer a series of questions to generate feedback on care options to consider, which then assigns assessment levels ranging from self-isolation to emergency care, depending on the severity and urgency of the symptoms recorded. A testing site locator feature provides updated information on nearby COVID-19 testing sites if recommended by a physician.

Some people may still need to see a doctor but may worry about the potential risk of exposure (or the risk of exposing others) with in-person visits to a physician's office or urgent care center. As an alternative starting point for care, some people may continue to consider telehealth, which enables people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. Telehealth may be especially helpful as an initial option for medical advice related to COVID-19, and to help evaluate other possible health issues, such as allergies, pink eye or the flu.

Employers also have a tool available for their employees. ProtectWell, a new smartphone app just launched by Microsoft and UnitedHealth Group, screens employees for COVID-19. Employees found to be at-risk for COVID-19 are directed to get a test and the app notifies employers of the results. The ProtectWell app is offered to all employers in the United States at no charge.

Access to mental health resources may also continue to be an important tool for people to have as they head back to work. Being at home and perhaps feeling isolated over the last few months may have had an impact on one's mental health, and the loneliness people may be experiencing, as well as possible stress or anxiety brought on by the pandemic, should be considered alongside physical health.

Virtual mental health resources are available for those experiencing increased stress and anxiety. A free emotional support line (866-342-6892) is available 24/7 to the public courtesy of Optum, which is part of UnitedHealth Group. Staffed by mental health professionals, individuals may receive help without taking any unnecessary trips.

Available at no additional cost, mental health and wellness apps, like Sanvello, may also be great resources for coping with the ongoing stress and anxiety. Equipped with self-care tools, peer support groups, coaching and therapy, Sanvello offers a number of avenues to receive the help and support one may need as they return to work.

For people who used mental health services before COVID-19, some care providers offer long-distance counseling and other resources, enabling for continued care from the comfort of home. Check with your providers regarding options on what may work best for you.

Taking care of physical and mental health needs may be imperative in the coming weeks and months as communities strive to reopen and individuals resume more familiar living routines. Using online and telehealth services may play a role in facilitating a smoother and healthier transition.

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Dr. Sarah-Anne Schumann is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of Oklahoma and North Texas.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

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