I have been fielding quite a few questions from clients regarding their concerns about the Coronavirus / COVID-19 over the past couple weeks, and I can understand why. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that an outbreak in the United States is not so much a matter of ‘if’ anymore, but ‘when’. On February 26 the first cases of community transmission was announced in Northern California, and as of today (3/5) there are 80 cases in the US across 13 states. However, the purpose of this article is neither to speculate about the level of risk, nor to cause any sort of alarm or panic. There are plenty of other sources for that. Rather, my intention is to help employers prepare and protect their employees.
What is Coronavirus?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronavirus is a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Common signs of infection include shortness of breath, respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. Pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with preexisting medical conditions are at the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill from coronaviruses. CDC currently believes that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure.
COVID-19 was unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. It most likely originated from people exposed to infected animals, but at this point we know it can spread between people through their respiratory secretions, especially when they cough or sneeze – usually among people within about 6 feet of each other. It is also possible for people to catch COVID-19 by touching their eyes, nose or mouth after touching objects or surfaces that contain respiratory secretion droplets.
What can Employers Do?
- Educate employees on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and the precautions that can be taken to minimize the risk of contracting the virus discussed below, without causing panic.
- Review safety and emergency action plans to ensure they include infectious-disease protocols. Your insurance agent, broker and/or advisor should be able to assist you with this.
- There may be a point when public health official call for “social distancing”. To prepare of this explore the possibility of allowing employees to work remotely from home or creating more flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance between employees and others. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.
- Explore social distancing strategies, including avoiding close physical contact (e.g., shaking hands) and large gatherings of people
- Identify essential business functions, jobs, and roles – as well as critical elements within your supply chains (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) required to maintain business operations. Plan for how your business will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or these supply chains are interrupted.
- In some communities, schools programs may be dismissed. Determine how you will operate if an increasing number of your employees must stay home to care for their children. Prepare to institute flexible workplace and leave policies for these employees.
- Appoint a single point of contact within your organization for employee questions about COVID-19. Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly.
- As with any disease or illness, employers should direct employees to notify their supervisor if they have symptoms of a COVID-19 and to stay home if they are sick. Employers should also actively encourage employees who have any symptoms of acute respiratory illness to stay home and not come to work until they are free of signs of a fever and any other symptoms of COVID-19 for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines.
- If an employee arrives at work with acute respiratory illness symptoms they should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- Employers may consider providing additional sick leave so that workers may stay home if they are sick. Flexible leave policies help stop the spread of disease, including to healthy workers. Do not require a doctor’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work.
- Talk with contract / temporary employee providers about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Employers should provide adequate supplies and ready access to soap and running water, tissues, alcohol-based hand sanitizers and cleaning agents. Some worksites may need PPE (e.g., gloves, face shields, and respirators).
- Employers should remind employees of proper hand hygiene techniques, and emphasize the importance. Direct employees to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60%-95% alcohol in situations where soap & water is not available.
- Employers should routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as telephones, workstations, counter tops and doorknobs. An environmental cleaning is encouraged to be extra cautious.
- Visit the CDC’s coughing and sneezing etiquette and clean hands webpage for more information.
The risk of contracting COVID-19 is still low for the average American employee. However, it is important for employers to stay informed as the risk evolves. Employers should closely monitor the CDC & WHO websites for the latest and most accurate information.
Hal Soden, Jr. is a Commercial Insurance & Risk Management Advisor at the Oliver L.E. Soden Agency Corp with offices in Jamesburg & Shrewsbury, NJ. For additional info contact 732-521-0001.