in late 2019 a new virus was identified in Wuhan, China. It has been spreading worldwide and is now in the United States. The virus COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is not a flu but a pneumonia-like infection. It is not classified as a pandemic in the United States (at least, not yet). However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) cautions that under the circumstances, it is likely that the virus could cause a pandemic.
How is COVID-19 Spread?
The current understanding about how the COVID-19 spreads is based on what is known about similar viruses. The disease is spread mainly from person-to-person, through small respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths, noses or be inhaled by people who are nearby. It is also possible to catch COVID-19 by touching surfaces or objects that has the virus on it and then touching their eye, mouth, or nose, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
Strategies for Employers:
Employers should continue to monitor the situation and follow the official guidance of the CDC and World Health Organization (“WHO”). It is important to keep apprised of developments relating to the virus and take the virus into account when planning work-related travel, as discussed in more detail below.
Employers should repeatedly remind employees to follow the same steps they should be taking to avoid the seasonal flu, which is already one of the worst flus in the last ten (10) years.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least twenty (20) seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unclean 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 and wash your hands.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
- Accelerate third-party cleaning/custodial schedules.
- If available, teleconference your meetings, instead of traveling to meet in person.
- Educate your employees of the symptoms, and the potential health concerns associated with the virus.
- Have a main point of contact for employees for all concerns relating to health and safety.
- If touching or working with bloodborne pathogens, wear personal protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles.
Currently, the CDC has issued Warning Level 3 travel notices for South Korea and China. Travelers should avoid all non-essential travel to those countries. Also, it has elevated Iran, Italy and Japan to Alert Level 2. It is recommended that older adults and those with chronic medical conditions consider delaying nonessential travel to those countries. Employers whenever possible, should limit business travel to those countries as well.
Employer Pandemic Planning:
Employers should have plans in place to reduce the impact on their business. There are several strategies that the CDC and other organizations recommend. The CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) recommend practices such as flexible work options, telecommuting, and staggered shifts to help reduce the risk of person-to-person contact. This strategy reduces the spread by limiting the number of employees who come in contact with one another. If an employee is required to stay home due to quarantine, an employer should review their policies to determine whether such time off needs to be paid or unpaid or if telework is possible for the quarantine period.
Next, employers should plan for how their business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism and should also be prepared for the possibility of increased absenteeism due to child care responsibilities in instances where children are unable to attend school.
Finally, employers should ensure they have an internal communication process in place to alleviate employee fear, anxiety, and misinformation. Companies should also discourage harassment or mistreatment of employees by managers or co-workers due to their fear of the spread of COVID-19.