By the latest count, more than 28,000 people in China have been infected with Wuhan coronavirus, and some 560 people have died. The World Health Organization has deemed it an epidemic and declared it a public health emergency, but has not yet deemed it a pandemic.
In the United States, there have been 12 confirmed cases as of February 6. Meanwhile, this season has seen more than 19 million influenza illnesses, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths.
The takeaway? If employers aren’t worried about the impact of the flu on their workforce and productivity, they have even less reason to get worked up over this latest epidemic.
“At this time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that, while the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) poses a potentially serious public health threat, the risk to individuals is dependent on exposure,” OSHA writes in its guidance. “For most people in the UnitedStates, including most types of workers, the risk of infection with 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCov) is currently low.”
OSHA does identify certain occupations where the risk may be higher, including health care and dental care workers, airline workers, those in waste management, and workers who travel internationally. Of course, for employers who do business internationally, limiting employee travel to Wuhan and/or China should be a priority, as well as educating and monitoring employees who have recently traveled abroad or are currently out of the country.
“To the extent employers have employees who have recently traveled to China, and to the Wuhan area in particular, employers can consider asking the returning employees to work from home and/or place them on paid leave to ensure they are not bringing the virus into the workplace,” recommends the law firm Crowell & Morning in a blog post.
And while U.S.-based employers need not panic about the effect on their workforce, this would be a good time to take a look at their sick leave and remote work policies and remind employees of expectations. Sick employees, whether suffering from the flu, a case of strep throat or even just a cold, should be encouraged to stay home.
“Employers should reinforce sick leave policies and encourage employees to stay home if they are feeling ill, to the extent feasible,” Crowell & Morning advises. “And, employers should not offer medical opinions or propagate information about the virus that does not come from a reliable government source.”
In a recent blog post, the Business Group on Health also offered the following tips:
- Educate and remind employees of essential prevention practices. Take this opportunity to remind employees of the common-sense measures they can take to prevent illness, including proper hand-washing, covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and ensuring their workplaces remain clean and sanitized. In addition, the Business Group recommends avoiding crowded places and limiting interaction with people who show symptoms of illness.
- Recognize symptoms. Coronavirus presents with symptoms similar to the cold or flu, such as fever, cough or trouble breathing. Regardless of the cause of such symptoms, encourage employees to stay home.
- Review your emergency preparedness plan. “Review your emergency response and pandemic protocols, including but not limited to your corporate telework policy,” the Business Group writes. “Be transparent with available information to your employees”
As with past virus outbreaks, swift global response combined with implementation of preventive measures will likely quell the spread of Wuhan coronavirus before it has a significant impact on U.S. businesses. So while it’s prudent to stay abreast of the latest developments and best practices, most employers don’t need to lose any sleep over the issue.