Since the dawn of the new year, the media across the world have been overwhelmed by reports of a deadly novel virus, coronavirus, ravaging China’s Hubei province and spreading fast beyond China’s shores. The virus, now officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, has infected more than 59,000 persons in the country, killing no less than 1,367 citizens.
While this outbreak in China drew concerns from around the world, what sparked global anxiety, however, was the rapid spread and growing incidence of the infection in other parts of the world.
From Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province, the virus has spread within one month to no less than 28 countries and territories including neighboring Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand, and more remote countries such as the United States, Germany, and the UK. Consequently, the WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency.
The disease is said to have originated from exposure to infected animals in a seafood market in Wuhan and has spread through direct person-to-person transmission to thousands of people. The virus is concentrated in the respiratory tract (nose and lungs) and is, therefore, spread through droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person.
Although the infection is typically milder and less fatal outside China, incidence rates and death tolls continue to rise by the day, stirring a wind of uncertainty around the globe and leading governments to take stiff measures restricting movements of people to and from China.
As of today, more than 50 countries have imposed travel restrictions and stiffen visa requirements to curb further spread of the virus.
On February 6, the United States placed a ban on entry on US non-nationals or non-residents that have been in mainland China within the previous 14 days of their arrival. US citizens, however, who have been in mainland China within the previous 14 days may be allowed to enter through specific airports and face up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine.
Likewise, on January 30th, the US State Department reviewed its travel advisory to US citizens, raising it to Level 4, which advises citizens to “not travel to China due to coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.”
At the same time, airlines in the country including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines suspended all flights from and to China until much later in this quarter.
While these strategies may curb a further entry of the virus into the country, they do not necessarily prevent direct, person-to-person transmission between persons residing in the same country.
Taking these safety measures a step further, we need to control the local spread of the infection in countries that have already confirmed a case of the disease.
Since we spend much of our time at the workplace and workers have much less control over the workplace environment than our homes, employers and HR managers need to take extra caution to prevent the spread of the infection in the workplace.
Preventive Strategies in the Workplace
The US. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released interim guidance as strategies for preventing the spread of the virus in the workplace. Here are some of the recommended strategies:
1. Allow Sick Employees to Stay Home
- Workers who have acute respiratory symptoms should be allowed to stay home until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours.
Like most other coronaviruses, COVID-19 causes respiratory infection with symptoms of fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. The WHO elucidated the severity of these symptoms, suggesting that the virus can cause mild, flu-like illness or more severe respiratory disease. The complications of severe disease include pneumonia, respiratory failure, and death.
After an individual gets infected, the virus usually incubates for about 14 days before manifesting physical symptoms; however, infected persons remain highly infective during this incubation period.
- Employees should notify their employers and stay home if they develop these symptoms - or any other symptoms at all. If your company outsource employees, ensure the service provider is aware of the need for sick employees to stay home.
- Workers who appear to have acute respiratory symptoms on arrival to work or during the day should be separated from others and sent home immediately.
2. Emphasize Hand Hygiene
- Since the infection is transmitted via nasal and oral droplets, employers need to emphasize strongly the need for hand hygiene.
- Place clear posters around the workplace, showing demonstrative images of hand hygiene tips such as washing the hand with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (that contains at least 60-95 % alcohol) or soap and water for no less than 20 seconds. Advise employees to use soap and water if their hands are visibly dirty.
- Provide soap and water, as well as alcohol-based hand sanitizers in different locations in the workplace. Also, provide your workers with tissues and no-touch disposal containers to limit contact with infected material.
- Educate your workers on cough and sneeze etiquette. These tips include covering one’s nose and mouth with a tissue (not the hand) when they cough or sneeze and washing one’s hand with soap and water afterward.
3. Regular Environmental Cleaning
- Routinely clean and disinfect touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, desks, countertops, and doorbells, with appropriate cleaning agents.
- Provide disposable wipes for employees to wipe down these surfaces before use.
4. Follow Current Travel Advisory
- Update your workers about CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for travel recommendations for each country they wish to travel. The CDC currently recommends a Level 3 warning, which advises travelers to “Avoid Nonessential Travel” to the People’s Republic of China. Consequently, all official assignments to China should be suspended until the CDC gives a green light.
- Employers should accommodate any employee’s objection to travel for fear of contracting the infection. Older employees, those with immune deficiency, and pregnant women should not be allowed to travel to areas with established cases of the infection.
- Workers who just returned from Wuhan or any part of China for whatever reason should stay away from work for 14 days before returning.
- For travel to countries with fewer restrictions, employees should report and receive full treatment for any symptoms of respiratory illness before departure.
- Employers who fall ill while traveling or on an official assignment in another country should notify their supervisor and contact a healthcare professional in that country as soon as possible.
To sum up, employers should keep themselves - and their employees - updated with the CDC’s recommendations and seek legal advice to ensure they make informed workplace decisions to curb the spread of the deadly virus.