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COVID-19 a.k.a. the Coronavirus: What We Know and What You Can Do

Researcher holding test tube

Wednesday, Mar 11th, 2020

Note: As the situation develops and we learn more about this new virus, SafetySkills will continue to update this page.

A new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly spreading around the globe and the World Health Organization has declared the disease a pandemic. As an employer, you should take precautions to ensure the safety of your employees from this and other infectious diseases.

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19, also known as coronavirus disease 2019. Originating in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, this virus had not been previously identified in humans. There has been speculation of the exact cause, but it is believed to be similar to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), both of which spread to humans from animals.

Who is at Risk?

Currently, it is believed that the virus is spreading primarily through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. You must be in close proximity to someone who is infected, as the droplets must be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through a mucous membrane for the virus to infect you as well. It is also currently assumed the virus may be transferable via door handles, elevator buttons, copiers and other shared workplace surfaces.

If you are infected, you will likely experience symptoms within two to 14 days of your initial exposure. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Similar to many other viruses, certain groups of people are at a higher risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2. People who are immune-deficient or who have pre-existing conditions should take additional precautions.

The Information You Need

Containment and eradication efforts are occurring globally. As an employer, it is critical that you remain up to date with the most recent and reliable information. The following websites have proven to be credible:

Be sure that any information you provide your employees in the workplace is coming from a trustworthy source. During outbreaks, government websites will frequently be the best resource for both reliable and current information. Media outlets may not have all the known information at any one time and should not be used as your main source.

The inundation of information from unreliable sources has created significant anxiety around COVID-19, with many people taking drastic measures to protect themselves. Many of these measures are not only advised against but can also be dangerous. Your organization can utilize both internal and external communication methods to share both information on the virus as well as specific steps the company is taking. If your company offers an employee assistance program, or EAP, it may be beneficial to remind employees of the EAP and its role.

Taking Precautions in the Workplace

If you don’t already maintain a plan for epidemic and/or pandemic responses, now is an excellent time to create one. Typically, it will be part of your emergency response plan, which can also include information on responding to natural disasters, active shooter incidents and similar situations.

Prepare for closures across your city, state and country as well as travel restrictions that prevent your employees from getting to work. If employees can do their work from home, consider implementing a more liberal policy to prevent sick employees from coming to work. Employers should also consider making policy updates to sick leave and other policies that may force sick employees to come to work.

Employers should take additional precautions around the workplace. You should make sure that either employees or cleaning staffers are regularly disinfecting handles, doorknobs, computers, desks, sinks, toilets and other communal items. You can place signs in restrooms and kitchen areas, reminding employees to wash their hands to help prevent the spread of disease. You can also create new policies that reduce the number of in-person meetings or eliminate them altogether.

The most successful preventive measures have proven to be deceptively simple. One of the best ways to prevent yourself from getting sick is by frequently washing your hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and warm water. It is not necessary to use antibacterial soaps, as regular soap and water are proven to be just as effective. When you’re unable to wash your hands immediately, carry an alcohol-based sanitizer. This should not be used in situations where your hands are visibly dirty or have other contaminants on them. Hand sanitizers should only be used as a temporary solution until you can wash your hands.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is currently recommending that for the two weeks all gatherings of 10 people or more being either canceled or postponed. Everyone should focus on social distancing as much as possible. This includes avoiding public transportation, taxis, or ridesharing as well as crowded places such as malls or movie theaters. You should keep at least six feet, or two meters, between you and others. If you are returning home from an area with an ongoing community spread, you should stay home for 14 days to monitor your health, even if you feel healthy. To monitor your health, you should take your temperature twice a day and watch for a cough or troubled breathing.

While it has been shown to be unlikely that the virus can be stopped from infecting large numbers of people, we can use social distancing to slow its spread. This provides hospitals with much needed breathing room to ensure that supplies and staff are prepared.

Encourage your employees to take precautions against the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well as other illnesses that are common in the wintertime, like the flu. Some of the effective precautions include:

For those who are over age 65, have certain medical conditions or smoke, the pneumonia vaccine is also a recommended precaution. Employees should always discuss this with their doctor first.

Avoid Taking Unnecessary Measures

Not all suggestions for protecting yourself from SARS-CoV-2 are necessarily the safest or best methods. Face masks are one example, as they don’t actually protect you against germs. If you are ill, a face mask can help contain the spread of your germs if you’re coughing or sneezing, but even then, they are only moderately effective and should not be relied upon.

Rather than wearing face masks, which are considered a necessary medical supply, you can cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue. If you must cough or sneeze into your hands, wash them as soon as possible afterwards. Some people have also been purchasing N95 respirators, which can filter out at least 95% of particles in the air, including bacteria and viruses. While effective, they must be worn correctly, and both a fit test and proper seal are necessary. Masks are not recommended as a prevention measure for the general population.

Stay Informed with SafetySkills

The information on COVID-19 is constantly changing and evolving, and this article is based on the best information currently available. As the situation develops and we learn more about this new virus, SafetySkills will continue to update this page.

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