Although news outlets may be preoccupied with alarming updates about the spread of coronavirus – including several cases identified in the United States – employers don’t need to panic quite yet. As of today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the current coronavirus outbreak as a serious public health threat but one where the immediate health risk to the general American public is considered low. At this point, the best course of action is to proactively arm yourself with information about best practices to keep your workforce safe and monitor developments to determine if additional steps will need to be taken. What should employers keep in mind during the early stages of this outbreak?
If you are not already familiar with the news, a new virus first identified in Wuhan, China in 2019 has been spreading across the globe in the past few weeks. The new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is not a flu but a pneumonia-like infection. While influenza and coronavirus share some symptoms, the coronavirus is not a flu. Coronaviruses, so called because of their crownlike shape, range from the common cold to SARS-CoV and 2012’s MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). They differ from Avian (H1N1) influenza and swine flu.
What are the symptoms of the current coronavirus?
The virus symptoms manifest as a mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. The CDC believes at this time that symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. Unfortunately, at this point there is no easy way to test for the coronavirus. Only the CDC can perform an accurate test.
How is the current coronavirus transmitted?
We do not yet know with certainty how the new coronavirus is transmitted. As in the case of SARS, researchers believe that the virus is zoonotic – meaning it jumped from animal to human, probably from contact with bodily fluids during preparation in the large Wuhan market.
Research is not yet confirmed about the ability of the coronavirus to spread from person to person, but it appears to have features similar to SARS and MERS, which generally spread between people who had “close contact” with one another. This could loosely be described as someone being coughed or sneezed upon. Fortunately, experts do not believe that this current coronavirus will manifest itself as a highly infectious airborne virus, but days are still early to make a definitive determination. While possible, it is less likely that this coronavirus spreads through eating infected meat, especially if cooked above 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
Considerations For Workforces That Travel
So far, the coronavirus cases that have appeared in the United States have involved people who had recently been traveling in affected areas in China. While we may see people spread the virus within the U.S., your current focus should be on avoiding overseas exposure.
The U.S. State Department has issued a Level-4 Warning recommending that travelers not travel to Hubei Province of China, including Wuhan. A Level-2 Warning has been issued for all of China, which instructs visitors to exercise increased caution. However, at this point the U.S. State Department and the CDC have not issued travel restrictions. Therefore, if you do have a workforce that visits any part of China, you should encourage them to follow the same travel practices that are currently employed by air and other passengers to avoid the flu, common colds, and other maladies.
If employees refuse your instruction to travel for business to China or any other country for fear of catching the coronavirus, try to work out an amicable resolution. Under the federal OSH Act, employees can only refuse to work when a realistic threat is present. Employees who object on behalf of others or act in groups could be covered by the National Labor Relations Act’s protection of concerted protected activity. You will want to proceed with caution and consult with your attorney before taking any steps in this regard.
Also, the CDC advises that some individuals may be more at risk of infection than others in the general population. Follow the CDC direction on pregnant employees or on related reproductive issues, and do not make decisions without medical support.
If you have workers that have recently visited China and feel sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing, you should ensure they consult a medical provider before returning to work. At this point, the CDC believe that if someone has not presented symptoms within 14 days, they do not have the coronavirus, and are not infectious. While the CDC has not definitively determined if an individual can be infectious before the presentation of symptoms, presumably one would not present a risk of infection after 14 days, regardless of whether one presents symptoms. This, of course, is assuming the assumed incubation period is accurate.
Train Your Employees On Prevention Techniques
As in the case of the annual influenza, SARS, avian flu, and swine flu, the best way to prevent expansion is to avoid exposure. Instruct your workers to take the same actions they would to avoid the flu.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Surgical masks have not been proven to definitively protect someone because they may not be tight and allow droplets around the edges. However, masks prevent you from unconsciously touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, so they may offer a measure of protection.
School employers and other organizations that feature many people in close quarters should double down on their education and wellness efforts to prevent the seasonal flu anyway, which is already one of the worst flus in the last 10 years.
What Should We Do Next?
At this point, the best course of action is to monitor information and educate your employees to reduce unfounded fears about travel, flying, and co-workers. Silence breeds suspicion and paranoia.
The other critical step you can take at this point is to repeatedly, creatively, and aggressively encourage employees, students, and others to take steps to avoid the flu. Perhaps the most important message is to stay home if sick. These same measures would most likely stop any spread of the current coronavirus.
However, if any employee presents themselves at work with a fever or difficulty in breathing, this indicates that they should seek medical evaluation. While these symptoms are not always associated with influenza and the likelihood of their having coronavirus is extremely low, it pays to err on the side of caution.
Finally, take some time to put the current outbreak into perspective. SARS, H1N1, Swine Flu, and MERS have been described as “dress rehearsals for future epidemics.” Public health authorities have improved their response to such outbreaks each time one develops.
Remember, for example, how SARS – which was another coronavirus – was first described in 2002 as “the big one” and “a killer bug.” While it was a serious new virus, fewer than 10,000 cases developed worldwide, well under 1,000 people died, and the outbreak was largely over in a few months. Therefore, a panic about this outbreak is neither helpful nor appropriate at this time.