Coronavirus: What businesses need to know

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Businesses and office buildings should immediately put a plan in place to prepare for significant disruption if an outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) becomes reality, health officials say.

Over the last few weeks, the Centers for Disease Control “has been on dozens of calls with different partners in the health, retail, education and business sectors, in the hopes that employers begin to respond in a flexible way to differing levels of severity, to refine their business response plans as needed,” spokesperson Benjamin Haynes said on Wednesday’s CDC telebriefing.

“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Tuesday. “We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.”

Not only should businesses have procedures in place to minimize the spread of infection, but they should set up a continuity plan to carry them through what could be prolonged shutdowns of schools and offices.

First step: Nonpharmaceutical interventions

The CDC has issued guidelines to help businesses prepare for pandemics. While many of the steps were prepared with influenza in mind, the guidelines have recently been updated to include coronavirus.

Implementing nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) are the most important first step businesses and organizations should take, according to CDC. NPIs help slow transmission of the virus in communities, which is especially important before a pandemic vaccine becomes widely available.

NPIs include measures such as “social distancing” in workplaces and schools, postponing or cancelling mass gatherings and environmental measures including repeated disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces. (Social distancing means staying at least three feet away from other people.)

All members of the organization should be reminded to cough into their sleeve or a tissue, wash hands with soap and water frequently and stay home if sick. Ill people should voluntarily isolate themselves at home. They should wear face masks when traveling to a doctor’s appointment — though approved face masks are currently unavailable.

Haynes recommended businesses start considering how to “replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options. On a larger scale, communities may need to modify, postpone or cancel mass gatherings.” He added, “Secondary consequences of some of these measures might include missed work and loss of income. I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.”

The maximum benefit from NPIs occurs when all of these elements are layered upon each other, according to the CDC.

At a press conference on Feb. 26, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the coronavirus “is going to be with us a long time, and we have to work together.”

Next steps

The CDC has put together a booklet listing specific steps businesses should take beyond NPIs.

Some of the recommendations listed there include:

– Developing an emergency communication plan for sharing information with managers, employees, clients and customers;

– Establishing flexible attendance and sick leave policies;

– Developing a system to alert the local health department about large increases in absenteeism due to flu-like symptoms;

– Making plans for what to do if the Health Department recommends closing schools or canceling events;

– Promoting sick leave policies that encourage sick employees to stay home;

– Limiting gatherings to small groups of less than six people (consisting of the same employees each day);

– Cross-training employees to ensure coverage in case people need to stay home;

– Providing supplies that promote healthy hygiene, including tissues, soap and hand sanitizer.

As of Sunday, there were at least 70 individuals in the U.S. with presumptive or positive coronavirus cases, according to CDC data. A second case of unknown origin was located in California late Friday, according to the Washington Post, indicating the virus is spreading in the state.

More steps businesses can take to plan for a coronavirus outbreak can be found here.


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