Our firm, Fisher Phillips LLP, will be providing regular updates and guidance, so follow us, but here’s an interim update.
We’re following rapidly developing news about a novel 2019 corona virus first identified in Wuhan, China. The new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is not a flu but is a pneumonia-like infection. While influenza and coronavirus share some symptoms, the coronavirus is not a flu.
We are still learning about the new coronavirus, but so far, the CDC describes it as a very serious public health threat, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time. The World Health Organization (WHO) has not declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Nevertheless, employers and individuals should monitor the CDC site, 2019 novel coronavirus, Wu hand China, and other public health sources. While much of the initial news coverage has been accurate, we remember how Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another Coronavirus, was first described in 2002 as “the big one” and “killer bug.” While SARS was a serious new virus, officially there were 8098 cases, 774 died and the outbreak was largely over in a few months. A panic is neither helpful or appropriate.
What is a Coronavirus and How Does it Spread?
Coronaviruses, so called because of their crownlike shape, range from the common cold to SARS-CoV and 2012’s MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Coronaviruses differ from Avian (H1N1) influenza, and swine flu. Experts are relying on 2012’s MERS and SARS to extrapolate how 2019-nCoV will spread and behave.
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, and jumped from animal to human, probably from contact with bodily fluids during preparation in the large Wuhan market (Photos and Description). While possible, spread through eating infected meat is less likely, especially if cooked above 150 degrees.
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 of 2019 – in COV may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.
Research has not yet confirmed person to person spread, but it appears to have SARS and MERS generally spread between people who had “close contact,” which could loosely be described as coughed or sneezed upon. Fortunately, experts do not believe that this will manifest itself as a highly infectious airborne virus.
Prevention and treatment.
As in the case of the annual influenza, SARS, avian flu, and swine flu, the best way to prevent expansion is to avoid exposure. Take the same actions you 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 one because they may not be tight and allow droplets around the edges. However, masks prevent you from unconsciously touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Medical workers are often using N-95 respirators.
Schools employers and other organizations should double down on their education and wellness efforts to prevent the seasonal flu which is already one of the worst flus in the last 10 years.
What about travel?
So far, U.S. 2019-nCov cases have involved people who had been traveling in affected areas. While we may see people spread the virus within the U.S., a current focus should be on avoiding overseas exposure.
The US State Department has issued a level 4 warning recommending the travelers not travel to Hubei Province, including Wuhan. A Level 2 Warning has been issued for all of China – “Exercise Increased Caution.”
No warnings have been issued generally about travel.
What if I have traveled to China?
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.
The CDC has not definitively determined if an individual can be infectious before the presentation of symptoms; however, presumably, one would not present a risk of infection after 14 days, regardless of one whether one presents symptoms; assuming the assumed incubation period is accurate.
If one traveled to China, transmission could’ve occurred if one had contact with sick people, live or dead animals, animal markets, and products that come from animals, such as uncooked meat.
What Do I Do Next?
Monitor information and educate employees to reduce unfounded fears about travel, flying, coworkers, and Asians. Silence breeds suspicion and paranoia.
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.
Presenting a fever or difficulty in breathing is not always associated with influenza and indicates that an individual should seek medical evaluation.
There is no vaccine or easy way to test for the coronavirus. Only the CDC can test.
Except for China, the US State Department and the CDC have not issued travel restrictions. Organizations should encourage their personnel 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 duties or travel, try to work out an amicable resolution. Under the Federal OSHAct, employees can refuse to work only when a realistic threat is present. Employees who object on behalf on others or act in groups are covered by the National Labor Relations Act’s protection of concerted protected activity.
According to the CDC, some individuals may be more at risk of infection and that fact should be considered. Follow the CDC direction on pregnant employees or on other reproductive issues, and do not make decisions without medical support. Spend a few minutes with counsel.
SARS, H1N1, Swine Flu and MERS have been described as ” dress rehearsals for future epidemics.” We have improved our response each time, but we have also been lucky as to the time of the year and areas infected. Employers must consider Pandemics in their Business Continuity Planning.
In the short term, an expanding outbreak in China could pose significant supply-chain and market challenges.
Healthcare must build on its experiences with recent Pandemics and Ebola because experts speculate that we are not ready for a mass outbreak. See WSJ: US Hospitals aren’t Ready for Coronavirus.
Fisher Phillips LLP