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

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 February 27, 2020, at 5:09 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.

Asian woman with mask

RIGHT NOW: For the first time, there are more NEW coronavirus cases currently being reported outside China than inside. Japan has decided to closes all its schools for a month. Within the last 24 hours seven countries have reported their first case including Brazil, Norway, Macedonia, Romania, Pakistan, Greece and Georgia such that Antarctica is the only continent that has yet to been affected. The new coronavirus outbreaks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East are renewing concerns of a possible global pandemic. "Patient zero" - the first human infected - has still not been identified. As of Thursday, February 27, the WHO confirmed over 82,000 cases globally, including almost 3,000 deaths. While the virus was first documented in China, it has spread around the globe to over 47 other countries, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, France, Canada, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, India, UAE, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Iran, Cambodia, the United Kingdom, Finland, Philippines, Russia and United States. 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. To contain the spread of the virus, In January China enforced an unprecedented quarantine of 17 cities, impacting over 50 million people. Several countries have closed their borders with China as well as restricting travel from mainland China, and several airports worldwide are screening passengers for fever. 

The CDC is warning against travel to South Korea because of the large number of cases there, and the most recent press conference by the U.S. administration noted they will continue to monitor the situation for any other potential travel restrictions.

In Italy, reports increased 25% to over 400 confirmed cases and seven deaths, making it the center of the worst outbreak of the coronavirus outside Asia prompting a dozen towns in northern Italy to be on quarantine. Schools in certain regions of Italy were closed temporarily until at least March 1, with plans to review to determine if extending the school closure is warranted. Other European countries are also concerned about how the virus may spread. Austria temporarily closed its rail services, and France is monitoring people coming in from Italy.

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. WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency for the entire United States. The State Department recently issued a warning at the request of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for travelers to avoid going to China. The "Level 4: Do Not Travel" advisory is the highest level of warning the State Department gives for travel.

    Several companies have imposed non – essential travel restrictions. The geographical scope of the restrictions varies by company with some limited to Wuhan, others China, and some may extend to countries as well. Stay up to date with your company’s guidelines and consider any business travelers or expatriates in the region that 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 the Wuhan 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, keeping 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. There is currently no vaccine for this disease. However, being up to date on other vaccines, such as the flu, promotes good overall health. 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 the 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, touching an object or surface with the virus and then touching your face. 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 Wuhan.
  • Assess your policies and programs. This includes medical, pharmacy, life and disability to see where exceptions or special protocols may need to be put into place and how to best support quarantined employees. For example, do employees have appropriate technology to work from home and are they comfortable doing so? Also, consider ways to support the mental health and emotional well-being of your employees' telehealth and EAP.

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. 

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