As of today, the coronovirus has sickened more than 43,000 in Asia and claimed more than 1,000 lives. Cases have also surfaced in at least 24 other nations, with 13 reported cases in the U.S. The New York Times keeps an updated coronavirus map. They also have reporters in China and are posting frequent coronavirus news updates on their site, so a good source for monitoring developments.
Global health officials are keeping a wary eye on this rapidly evolving situation. Health care providers, officials and scientists are working overtime to learn how the virus spreads and to develop a vaccine. U.S. health officials have stated that this is currently not a crisis in the U.S., but note that the situation is fluid and has the potential to change. They also remind us that annual outbreak of influenza is ongoing, and an illness that claims thousands of lives every year. It’s not too late to be inoculated because prime flu season continues through the Spring.
The entire world hopes this outbreak will plateau soon and that researchers will find a vaccine. Even though this isn’t a current crisis in U.S. workplaces, it’s a good time for employers to review and update emergency procedures and crisis plans. Having an updated crisis plan is best practice not just in response to this potential outbreak, but for any unplanned emergency that might affect your workforce. It’s important to have plans that include a designated crisis response team, a review of related policies and procedures, a plan for employee communications and a list of community resources, If you haven’t updated your emergency preparedness plan recently, this might be a good time to do it.
It’s also important to have trustworthy resources and factual matter to share with employees should they have concerns. Contagious illnesses can provoke great fear and anxiety, particularly in response to dramatic news accounts. And there may be some populations in your workforce who have special concerns: Employees who travel to or have family in affected countries and healthcare workers who would be on the front lines of any response, for example.
Communications about the virus have referred to it with various names: the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, the Wuhan virus and various other names. To improve communication across multiple channels, The World Health Organization has just assigned the official name of COVID-19, which stands for stands for Corona Virus Disease 19, with a suggested hashtag of #covid19. Many materials and media will continue using a variety of names until the new name takes root; note that even the WHO site has not fully adopted the new name.
The two best sources of authoritative and accurate medical and health information are:
- The World Health Organization (WHO) provides global updates, protection advice, questions & answers, myths and more.
- Here in the U.S., The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has a dedicated coronavirus site with information for the public about how it spreads, symptoms, testing, FAQs, fact sheets and more. The CDC also offers Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to 2019 Novel Coronavirus This covers recommended strategies for employers to use now, information on planning for a possible coronavirus outbreak in the US. and recommendations for a workplace infectious disease outbreak response plan.
… and the CDC adds this important caution for employers:
To prevent stigma and discrimination in the workplace, use only the guidance described [in the guidance linked above] to determine risk of nCoV infection. Do not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin, and be sure to maintain confidentiality of people with confirmed coronavirus infection.
Healthcare employers should note that the CDC also offers specific guidance for hospitals and healthcare providers:
- Information for Healthcare Professionals
- Preparedness checklists for healthcare providers and hospitals
Another key resource for employers is OSHA: 2019 Novel Coronavirus
Other resources that may be helpful to employers and HR professionals:
- SHRM: Coronavirus: What Employers Need to Know
- Crowell & Moring LLP: Coronavirus: Key Issues for Employers
- Littler: Coronavirus: What are an Employer’s Obligations in Various Asian Countries?
- HR Daily Advisors:Coronavirus Fears at Work: What Employers Need to Know
- CDC Information for travelers
- HR Dive: A quick guide to disaster preparedness in the workplace
- Ready.gov – Emergency preparedness for businesses
- Connecticut Employment Law Blog: With New Coronavirus, Making Your Workplace Ready for an Pandemic: What Employers Need to Know
- Ohio Employers Law Blog: Does the ADA protect employees who travel to areas that potentially expose them to coronavirus?
- Connecticut Employment Law Blog: Can You Fire an Employee Who Refuses To Travel for Business to a Coronavirus “Hot Spot”?
- Employment Law Matters: 2019 Novel Coronavirus is not a pandemic yet, but concerns are growing.
- FMLA Insighrs: When Are Employees Entitled To FMLA Leave Related To Coronavirus? And Can an Employee with No Symptoms Be Forced Off Work?