Coronavirus Disease 2019 and Workplace Prevention

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Written By: Gary P. Schwartz, CIH, CSP, CMC
February 24, 2020

What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus Disease 2019, now officially known as COVID-19, is a new respiratory illness that was first identified in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. This is not the same as the types of coronaviruses that commonly spread among humans that cause mild cold symptoms. COVID-19 most likely developed from an animal source and is currently spreading from person-to-person.

There have been tens of thousands of cases in China, with a growing number of infections spreading internationally. Illnesses range from having mild flu-like symptoms to severe respiratory illness and death. As of February 20, 2020, there have been over 75,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 2,000 deaths from the virus globally. It is also important to note that the CDC estimates there have been at least 26 million influenza illnesses and 14,000 deaths so far this flu season.

Symptoms and Treatments

Those with confirmed COVID-19 infections have reported symptoms including mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Complications may include pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe that symptoms of COVID-19 appear between 2 and 14 days after exposure.

There is currently no treatment or vaccine specifically available for COVID-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to COVID-19. People infected with COVID-19 should receive care to alleviate their symptoms. For severe cases, treatment should involve supporting vital organ functions.

People who believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should contact their healthcare provider immediately. Call ahead before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room and warn them about your symptoms and concerns.

Preventing COVID-19 in Your Workplace

Illness prevention for COVID-19 in the workplace revolves around important actions employers and employees can take to protect themselves, referred to as nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs).

Given the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, workplace illness prevention policies should be revised to include: monitoring employee travel to impacted locations, implementing a 14-day stay at home before returning to work policy following a visit to an impacted location, guidance for employees exposed to close family or friends impacted by an outbreak, and a stay at home/work from home policy when an employee is contagious or suspected to be contagious.

Employers and workplace administrators should:

  • Build illness prevention policies into business operations;
  • Stay informed about the COVID-19 situation in the area through communicating with the local health department;
  • Promote sick leave policies that encourage sick employees to stay home;
  • Train staff on healthy workplace policies and behaviors;
  • Maintain a clean work environment by cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects like telephones, keyboards, and doorknobs;
  • Provide supplies such as tissues, soap, and hand sanitizer to promote healthy hygiene; and
  • Encourage frequent hand washing using proper washing techniques.

Employees should:

  • Stay home when sick and for at least 24 hours after fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicines;
  • Stay at least 3 feet away from sick people whenever possible to avoid droplets from coughs or sneezes containing infection;
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and throw the tissue away and wash hands immediately;
  • Wash hands thoroughly and often with soap and water. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be used if water and soap are not available;
  • Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces with soap and water or an EPA-approved bleach-and-water solution or disinfectant.  Follow the instructions for the bleach solution or disinfectant to ensure it is effective in sanitizing the surfaces;
  • Know their employer’s sick leave policies; and
  • Stay informed on the local COVID-19 situation.

What to Do if You are Sick

If you are sick with COVID-19 or suspect that you have the virus, you should stay home for the duration of the illness, except when getting medical attention. If living with others, you should stay in a specific room to avoid contact with others in the home.

Call your healthcare provider to let them know you have or might have COVID-19 so they can take precautions to keep others from getting infected or exposed.

Wear a facemask when you are around other people and pets, and before you enter a doctor’s office. If you are unable to wear a facemask, you should stay in a separate room from those that live with you, or they should wear a facemask when entering your room.

Use good hygiene practices such as covering all coughs and sneezes, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer with 60-95% alcohol, avoiding sharing personal household items like dishes, cups or bedding, and clean surfaces that are frequently touched to avoid exposing others.

If your illness is worsening, seek medical attention immediately. If you have a medical emergency and must call 911, notify dispatch personnel that you have or are being evaluated for COVID-19. Put a facemask on prior to emergency medical services’ arrival if possible.

Conclusion

The spread of 2019 Coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is a rapidly evolving situation that is being closely monitored by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO). In the United States, imported cases of COVID-19 in travelers have been detected, along with person-to-person spread of COVID-19 among close contacts of returned travelers from Wuhan, China. However, the CDC stresses that this virus is not actively spreading in the United States, and the risk to the general American public is low.

Workplaces offer several opportunities for people to interact, which increases the risk for respiratory illnesses to spread. There are actions people can take to protect themselves and others from the transmission of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, which include staying home when sick and following proper hygiene practices.

It is expected that more cases globally will continue to be identified in the coming days, including in the United States. It is also anticipated that person-to-person spread of COVID-19 will continue to occur. Staying updated on the evolving situation and following the directions from public health officials is integral to slowing the spread of this virus.

References

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm