Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’re well aware of the latest global health scare dominating the news: coronavirus. Also known as COVID-19, the coronavirus is a novel virus that was first reported in the area of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, a highly populous city of 11 million whose density contributed to rapid spread of the illness. At first contained within China, COVID-19 soon appeared in countries around the globe, with large numbers of affected people in South Korea, Iran, Italy, and other nations. So far, the virus has a relatively low fatality rate, considerably lower than the average influenza (flu), and cases in the United States have been limited—at the time of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control reports a total of about 4,600 known cases of the illness in the U.S., with a current total of 85 unfortunate deaths. Globally, there are currently almost 182,000 cases of the illness, resulting in over 7,000 deaths. That number officially surpasses the death toll of SARS in the 2002-2003 epidemic.
Localized outbreaks in areas of the United States like Washington, California, and New York, among others, have prompted experts to believe that the pandemic has taken on more serious dimensions.
A major viral outbreak can cause major problems for employers, as workers may be at risk of exposure to the illness. Here’s everything you need to know to keep your workers healthy and safe from the coronavirus.
What is the coronavirus?
It’s a viral respiratory illness that has the ability to spread person-to-person.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Key symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, shortness of breath, and cough—quite similar to the common cold or flu virus. So far, severity of the cases has ranged from mild illness to severe complications and death, though the fatality rate remains low at this point. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions are more at risk of serious illness from coronavirus than people who are generally healthy, but this is not a hard and fast rule.
How does coronavirus spread?
According to the CDC, person-to-person transmission can occur between individuals within six feet of each other, typically through tiny respiratory droplets. The virus can also live on surfaces for up to three days, and new research indicates that it may be able to survive in the air for a short time as well.
Do I or my workers need face masks?
The CDC recommends that all individuals wear face masks, including people who are not displaying symptoms or who believe themselves to be healthy. Research has shown that wearing cloth masks is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the illness, along with hand washing and social distancing.
Note: A previous version of this post stated that people should not wear masks. The change here reflects the evolving understanding of the coronavirus.
How at-risk are my employees?
At this time, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration reports that the vast majority of workers in the United States are at very low risk of infection. If you have employees who have traveled recently to China or any of the other countries where the virus has been reported, those workers will be at highest risk of infection and should take all necessary precautions to prevent transmitting it to others. Workers in the following fields are at greatest risk of exposure, according to OSHA:
- Healthcare (pre-hospital and medical transport workers, healthcare providers, clinical laboratory personnel, and support staff)
- Death care (including coroners, medical examiners, and funeral directors).
- Airline operations
- Waste management
The CDC and OSHA have offered a set of guidelines to help workers and their employers minimize the risk of spreading the illness.
Wash! Your! Hands!
According to the CDC, the best thing you can do as an individual to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wash your hands frequently and rigorously. Because the virus can be transmitted via moisture droplets, it’s easy for it to end up on commonly touched surfaces like elevator buttons, handrails, even computer keyboards and other work tools. When you wash, scrub your hands with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds—say the alphabet in your head twice as you wash for a good approximation of the right amount of time. Wash your hands after using the bathroom, interacting with others, and just whenever you find the opportunity—this will slow the spread of the illness and help keep you and your colleagues healthy.
Cancel Business or Personal Travel to High-Risk Countries
Unfortunately for travelers, the international spread of coronavirus means that visiting certain countries may be very risky. The United States government has restricted some incoming travel from several nations, and if you’re planning a trip to any of the following countries, you’ll want to strongly reconsider canceling or postponing your visit.
- Hong Kong
- The Philippines
- South Korea
- Sri Lanka
- The United Arab Emirates
- The United Kingdom
Reinforce Illness Best Practices at Work
We’re all doing our best to stay productive during this time, but it’s essential that employers are cognizant and understanding of workers’ health. Make sure your employees are aware of proper hand-washing technique, and insist that they stay home from work if they feel unwell. Make sure your sick leave policies are non-punitive and consistent with public health guidance, and communicate your policies to employees. Workers should be able to stay home to care for a sick family member, and the CDC recommends not requiring a doctor’s note to validate illness, as this could overwhelm medical facilities and cause workers who are sick to show up at work.
In some areas, public health officials have recommended or mandated that some businesses close down entirely—bars, restaurants, schools, and some retailers have ceased operations. But for many, closing down may not be an option. In these cases, health officials are recommending that employees work from home whenever possible.
It’s also important to open communication with your business partners at other enterprises and find out if they’re following proper safety guidelines as well. Likewise, employers should be conducting regular, intense cleaning of work areas, particularly spaces or surfaces that see a large amount of interaction with people.
Create an Outbreak Response Plan
It’s important to note that the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on January 30, 2020, and as a result companies and governments are scrambling to develop plans to deal with the possible eventuality of a major outbreak. The CDC recommends outlining essential and non-essential business functions and exploring alternative work plans such as telecommuting or staggered shifts.
Most of All – Don’t Panic.
The threat of a global pandemic is scary, but it’s important to note that we’re not there yet, and public health agencies are coordinating to address cases in the United States and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For now, stay vigilant, take care of yourself and your team, and wash those hands!!