The Evolving Situation of Coronavirus – What We Know and What We Don’t

Updated April 29. Coronavirus has become a household word. Reports evoke memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - and for good reason.

This blog was last updated on April 29, 2020, at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Coronavirus has become a household word. Reports evoke memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - and for good reason. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause a range of illnesses from the common cold to severe diseases such as MERS, SARS, and can lead to pneumonia in some patients.¹ In 2003, SARS afflicted more than 8,000 people worldwide, killing 299 people in Hong Kong. In the case of MERS, as of September 2012 there have been 1,227 reported cases and 858 attributed deaths in 27 countries.

In December 2019, a novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China, believed to have originated from a local food market. On Monday, February 10, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed an official name for the disease caused by new coronavirus: COVID-19. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a different strain than those that cause SARS or MERS, and information about it is evolving.


RIGHT NOW: On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic calling for an “all-of-society” approach to fight the virus. Johns Hopkins has confirmed over 3 million cases globally, 1 million in the U.S., in approximately 167 countries, and more than 200,000 deaths, almost 60,000 of them in the U.S., as they call for wider action from world leaders to unleash the full capabilities and power of their governments to combat the disease. On March 19, China reported no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases for the first time since the pandemic began, marking a major turning point in the global battle to contain COVID-19 and China recently ended its lockdown of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. 

As the incubation period is up to 2 weeks, there is a lagging effect in knowing the true number of infections and the breadth of its spread. It is also not yet confirmed if asymptomatic carriers of the virus can spread the disease. Community spread has been identified in several countries, including the United States.

As there is still a lot unknown about this virus, governments and organizations are making determinations in how to respond.

  • In the U.S., for the first time history, all 50 states are under a disaster declaration at the same time. Also, some states ordered residents to stay at home requiring residents to remain in their homes except for essential services, including but not limited to:
    • Tasks to maintain health and safety, which includes obtaining medicine
    • Buying essential supplies, such as food
    • Engaging in outdoor physical activity with proper social distance
    • Caring for a family member in another household, elderly, minors, dependents, people with disabilities or other vulnerable persons

    The order also does not apply to those going to work in essential functions such as healthcare, grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, gas stations, banks, childcare facilities and more.

    • Authorities have issued quarantines of specific locations. In January, China enforced an unprecedented quarantine of 17 cities, impacting over 50 million people. Italy, Spain and France extended their emergency quarantine measures nationwide.
    • School closures: Globally, school closures have affected millions of students, with more than 20 countries on 3 continents ordering school closures of varying degrees.
    • Many countries have closed their borders to foreign travelers and are requiring those who enter to self-isolate. 

    We have seen a rapid escalation in social distancing measures, like closing schools, cancelling sporting events and gatherings. But we haven't seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, the backbone of the COVID-19 response.

    Dr. Tedros, WHO Director General

    What Should Employers and Their Employees Do? 

    With cases of the coronavirus in a number of countries, it is increasingly likely that it is in one or more countries where you have employees. Here are some actions you can take to support your employees, and make preparations in support of business continuity:

    • Monitor travel guidelines. Many countries, including the U.S. are imposing travel restrictions for certain countries or regions. On March 19, The US State Department warned U.S. citizens not to travel abroad issuing the highest possible level of travel advisory. The Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory "advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19." 
    • Also, President Trump announced a ban on foreign travelers from many European countries and closed northern and southern U.S. borders to non-essential travel. Some airlines have suspended flights to certain locations and governments have imposed new protocols on travelers upon arrival. 

      Stay up to date on travel restrictions imposed by country authorities as you update your company’s guidelines. Also consider any business travelers or expatriates in certain areas who may appreciate additional guidance.
    • Communicate effectively, regionally. Be transparent with available information to your employees. Consider creating a central source and point of contact to control information flow. When communicating, use evidence-based facts and be cognizant of cultural nuances. Also, your local well-being champion network can be a great resource to distribute materials and be eyes and ears to what is happening.
    • Special consideration for employees in affected areas. If you have local employees in an affected area, identify if any of them or their families have taken ill.
    • Educate and remind employees of essential prevention practices. Practicing good hygiene; such as washing hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds, carrying alcohol-based hand sanitizer where soap and water may not be available, avoid touching your face; including eyes, nose and mouth, avoid hand shaking and keep a distance from those who present symptoms; avoiding crowded places if possible, and covering your cough or sneeze are effective ways to limit the spread of this and other diseases. It appears that people who are the most infectious are those that are currently ill; however, there is evidence to indicate asymptomatic transmission. For those with the illness, the CDC recommendation is isolation until two negative tests are done, 24 hours apart. There is currently no vaccine for this disease. While scientists are currently working to develop one, experts say the earliest a vaccine could be available is 18 months.  However, being up to date on other vaccines, such as the flu, promotes good overall health and undue pressure on the overall health system. The CDC indicates that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems could be the most vulnerable.
    • Recognize symptoms. The main symptoms of coronavirus resemble those of a bad cold or flu; including fever, cough and shortness of breath. The most common way the virus spreads is through the air by coughing and sneezing but can also be transmitted by close personal contact. Currently there is believed to be a low transmission from surfaces, however, due to experience with SARS this is still being explored. In rare cases, the virus can spread through fecal contamination. If you feel you have symptoms, make prudent decisions. Do not travel if sick. Avoid going into the workplace where you could spread the illness. Seek medical attention for proper diagnosis and treatment.
    • Review your emergency preparedness plan. Review your emergency response and pandemic protocols, including but not limited to your corporate telework policy and business continuity plan. If possible, identify those who traveled to impacted areas.
    • Assess your policies and programs. This includes health, life and disability programs outside the U.S. to see where exclusions may exist. Also telecommuting or work from home policies have become instrumental for business continuity. Determine if employees have appropriate technology to work from home and if they are comfortable doing so. Take into consideration the mental and emotional well-being of your employees and explore various ways to support them, including potentially expanding your telehealth services.

    In our global world, goods, services and our workforce can rapidly share ideas across borders. However, that’s not all we share. Infectious disease knows no borders. Prevention, preparation, vaccination and information are the best defense against disease, epidemics or pandemics. 

    For more information on the coronavirus please follow the below links:

    Business Group on Health Resources

    External Resources