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Coronavirus: What Should You Be Doing Now?

on Thursday, 27 February 2020 in Covid-19 Information Hub

We hope President Trump was correct when he stated last evening during his press conference that a Coronavirus pandemic is “not imminent.”  But after listening to officials from the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) and reading in-between the President’s lines, it certainly sounds as though a Coronavirus pandemic in the United States is highly probable (if not “imminent”). 

Relax.  Our country has been through pandemics of varying severity.  Remember the H1N1 (a/k/a “Swine Flu”) pandemic of 2009?  The impacts were real, but temporary.  From all indications, this will be the same.  And while some employers are impacted more by pandemics than others, we know from past experience that spending time and resources on preparation is much more effective than doing nothing, or worse yet, panicking.  As the old saying goes, “prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.”

So, as an employer, what should you be doing now?  Well, in that regard, the CDC has provided us with some very helpful information called “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease.” 

Following are the highlights of the CDC’s Guidance document for employers that want to prepare for a Coronavirus pandemic:

Recommended strategies for employers to use now:

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home:
    • Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° or greater), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours.
    • Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and that employees are aware of these policies.
    • Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare providers and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.
    • Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member.  Be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
    • Employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or who become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.
  • Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene:
    • Place posters in the workplace that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze protocol (into a bent elbow or the shoulder, and not into the hand), and good hand hygiene.
    • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
    • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs (containing at least 60-95% alcohol) in the workplace.  Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained.  Place hand rubs in multiple locations.
    • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand rub, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Perform routine environmental cleaning:
    • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs.
    • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use. 
  • Advise employees before traveling to take certain steps:
    • Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which employees will travel.
    • If outside the United States, sick employees should follow your organization’s policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist them with finding an appropriate healthcare provider in that country.  A U.S. consular officer can help locate healthcare services.  However, U.S. embassies, consulates, and military facilities do not have the capability or resources to evacuate or give medicines, vaccines, or medical care to private U.S. citizens overseas. 
  • Additional recommendations:
    • Explore flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees.  For employees who are able to telework, encourage those employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace.  Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.
    • Identify essential business functions within your supply chains (e.g., raw materials, suppliers, subcontractor services/products, and logistics) and plan on how you can cope if those supply chains are interrupted.
    • Set up authorities, triggers, and procedures for altering business operations (e.g., possibly changing or closing operations in affected areas), and transferring business knowledge to key employees.
    • Establish a process to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plans and latest Coronavirus information.  Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly.
    • In some communities, schools may be dismissed, particularly if the Coronavirus outbreak worsens.  Determine how you will operate if absenteeism spikes from employees who must stay home to watch their children if dismissed from school.
    • Consider cancelling large work-related meetings or events, if recommended by the CDC, state, or local health agencies.

Our additional thoughts: 

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)
    • Many employers may be inclined to make medical inquiries of employees, or require them to undergo a medical examination, to determine whether they have Coronavirus.  Remember that just because there may be a Coronavirus pandemic, it does not impose “martial law” upon the ADA’s restrictions on an employer’s ability to make medical inquiries or require a medical examination of an employee.  Medical inquiries and examinations should be considered only after evaluating all available information about an employee’s potential exposure to Coronavirus.  Then, if the employer has a reasonable, good-faith belief based upon objective evidence that the employee is unable to safely or effectively perform the essential functions of his or her position due to Coronavirus, the employer can make a medical inquiry or require a medical examination.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act
    • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also addressing the Coronavirus situation.  Unlike the “good cop” CDC, OSHA is approaching the issue from more of a “bad cop” standpoint.  In discussing a possible Coronavirus outbreak, OSHA tells employers that it may cite them for violations of OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) standard (which requires using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection to prevent exposure to hazards).  OSHA also notes that if respirators are necessary to protect workers, then employers must implement a “comprehensive” respiratory protection program in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.134.  In addition, OSHA reminds employers of its “General Duty Clause” that requires employers to furnish to each worker “a place of employment . . . free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. 

Final thoughts:

Stay calm and prepare.  By definition, a pandemic will be widespread.  That does not necessarily mean it will be severe. 

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 was both widespread and severe.  It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus.  The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.  But at that time there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with influenza, and control efforts worldwide such as quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings were applied unevenly, if at all.

In comparison to the Spanish Flu pandemic, the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 was neither widespread nor severe.  The CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases worldwide and that approximately 150,000 to 575,000 people died from the virus.

At this point, there are no indications the Coronavirus will be worse than the 1918 Spanish Flu or the 2009 H1N1 pandemic – but it could be.  That is why the time for employers to act is now.

Finally, be sure to inform your employees about the steps your organization has taken to help fight a pandemic – but remind them that they are on the front-line.  None of your efforts will work without their cooperation.  Stress that this is a fluid situation, you will be providing updates, and they should only depend on information they get from you, the CDC, and state and local health agencies.  Now is not the time to rely on Facebook, Twitter, or television pundits for critically important information. 

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