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

Coronavirus has become a household word in the last few weeks. Reports evoke memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - and for good reason.

Coronavirus has become a household word in the last few weeks. 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 proposed an official name for the illness caused by new coronavirus: COVID-19. The 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: the disease seems to be spreading rapidly. As of  Friday, February 14, only a little over a month since first reports of the virus emerged, China’s National Health Commission confirmed over 63,000 cases globally, including over 1,100 deaths. The virus has spread beyond China to over 25 other countries, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, France, Canada, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, India, UAE, Sri Lanka, 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.

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, China has enforced an unprecedented quarantine of 17 cities, impacting over 50 million people. Lunar New Year holiday is a time for celebrations, however this year, there have been ordinances against congregating in large crowds. Meanwhile, France, Italy, U.S., and Japanese governments are working to evacuate their citizens located in the Hubei province, several countries are closing their borders with China as well as restricting travel from mainland China, and several airports worldwide are screening passengers for fever. 

What Should Employers and Their Employees Do? 

  • Monitor travel guidelines to the region. The World Health Organization (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.
  • Be cognizant of the extended Lunar New Year holiday. China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday to help contain the outbreak. This may disrupt travel and business schedules.
  • Special consideration for Wuhan area employees. 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. Be transparent with available information to your employees. If possible, identify those who traveled to Wuhan.

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. 

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