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Coronavirus: What Employers Need To Know For Travel, Sick Leave, and Risk Exposures

The coronavirus outbreak that originated in a Wuhan seafood market, is rapidly spreading. "The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen to 9,782 in mainland China, according to Chinese authorities. The new cases in China bring the global total to nearly 10,000 cases with at least 213 deaths. British health officials confirmed the first two cases of the coronavirus in the U.K., less than 24 hours after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global emergency." William Feuer and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. "Coronavirus live updates: US raises travel warning, Singapore bans Chinese travelers as outbreak spreads" cnbc.com (Jan. 31, 2020-8:33 a.m. EST)

 

A shortage of coronavirus test kits makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how many individuals have the virus. Experts have warned that the number of actual cases could be 30 times higher than the official estimate. Amy Gunia "Wuhan Coronavirus Infections Could Be 30 Times Higher Than Official Total, Hong Kong Researchers Warn" time.com (Jan. 27, 2020)).

 

Currently, 60 million people are in full or partial lockdown in China as the Chinese government attempts to stop the spread of the virus. ("January 27 coronavirus news" cnn.com (Jan. 27, 2020)). However, not much is known about the current coronavirus and scientists and health officials are working rapidly to understand the new disease. The non-specific symptoms associated with the outbreak include, coughing, fever, shortness of breath, and pneumonia. ("Coronavirus" who.int (Jan. 28, 2020)).

 

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that can cause many illnesses ranging from the common cold to serious diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The current strain, Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has not previously been detected in humans. Coronaviruses are typically transmitted between animals and humans, for example, SARS-CoV can be transmitted between civet cats or bats and humans. The virus then mutates and can be spread from human to human. There are several coronaviruses identified in animals that have not yet infected humans. ("Coronavirus" who.int (Jan. 28, 2020)). Experts still do not know the origin of Novel Coronavirus, which is important to prevent future outbreaks.

 

It is still not known when Novel Coronavirus becomes infectious over the course of the illness. Some sources say the incubation period could be between ten to 14 days ("Coronavirus: All you need to know about symptoms and risks" aljazeera.com (Jan. 27, 2020)). During that time, an infected person could unknowingly spread the disease before showing symptoms.

 

Additionally, a vaccine for Novel Coronavirus does not yet exist and it is not clear how soon one may be available. The US Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health are currently working on a vaccine. Unfortunately, it could be over a year until it is available. ("January 27 coronavirus news" cnn.com (Jan. 27, 2020); Elizabeth Cohen "Vaccine for new Chinese coronavirus in the works" cnn.com (Jan. 20, 2020)). Alternatively, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has announced plans to develop a vaccine that may be available for testing by next summer. (Dan Vergano "Here's What We Do And Don't Know About The Deadly Coronavirus Outbreak" buzzfeednews.com (Jan. 28, 2020)).

 

Currently, 2019-nCoV cases have been identified in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. These cases occurred in individuals who had recently traveled to or from China before the travel ban or interacted with someone did. ("Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed new cases? Aljazeera.com (Jan. 27, 2020)). However, experts confirmed that Novel Coronavirus can be transmitted from human to human. ("Coronavirus Live Updates: New Cases Emerge in Germany and Japan as Infection Exceed 4,500" nytimes.com (Jan. 28, 2020)).

 

Although significant efforts have been made to control and stop the coronavirus outbreak, experts predict the effects could extend into early May. This is due, in part, to the delay in putting the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, on lockdown. The outbreak is expected to reach its peak in March, 90 days after it started. This estimate is based on mathematical data from the SARS outbreak of 2003 and does not account for current government efforts to control the virus. (Rhea Mahbunani "A scientist warns we haven't seen the worst of the Wuhan coronavirus – it could reach 10 times the scale of the SARS outbreak and peak in March" businessinsider.com (Jan. 23, 2020)).

 

Commentary

The risk of catching Novel Coronavirus is higher in China, where the majority of cases exist. However, the possibility of contracting the virus outside China is less likely. Individuals outside of China who are infected with Novel Coronavirus are those who were in Wuhan before the travel ban or were in contact with someone who had recently been to China. Based on the available research, representatives for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stated that the risk of contracting Novel Coronavirus is low at this time. ("Transcript of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Response Telebriefing" cdc.gov (Jan. 17, 2020)).

 

However, the CDC has increased its travel precautions for all of China to the highest of three levels. Travelers are advised to avoid any travel to China that is nonessential. Additionally, the US State Department issued a travel advisory level of three for most of China, advising travelers to reconsider trips to the country, and level four for Hubei Provence where the virus originated, telling individuals not to travel there at all. ("January 27 coronavirus news" cnn.com (Jan. 27, 2020)).

 

Therefore, although the risk of contracting Novel Coronavirus is low for the general population of the United States, individuals should still avoid traveling to China for any purpose. Employers are advised to reconsider any travel plans to China and make accommodations for any employee who does not wish to travel there, especially if that employee is pregnant or has an immunodeficiency. Additionally, employers should promote good hygiene to prevent the spread of disease in the workplace. All employees are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, and avoid placing their fingers in their eyes, nose, or mouth.

 

Employers should also urge employees to stay home if they feel sick and allow more individuals to work from home during this time to address all forms of viruses. It is also important to remember that employers should not assume that any sick employee may have 2019-nCoV as they could have a less serious illness. If an employee has a confirmed case of Novel Coronavirus, employers should not out that employee publically.

 

Finally, during the Novel Coronavirus outbreak, employers should require any employee returning from a trip to China to stay home for two weeks before returning to work. This policy should be applied to all employees, not only those of Asian descent.

Additionally, having Novel Coronavirus is not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it is a transitory disease, but the virus could lead to impairments that would be covered. For example, any impairment that results from 2019-nCoV and limits a major life activity, such as breathing would be covered under the ADA. Therefore, employers are advised to not take any negative employment action against and employee who may have 2019-nCoV to avoid the risks of discrimination under the ADA.

 

Eligible employees working for employers covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, who contract the Novel Coronavirus, would most likely be considered to have a "serious health condition" triggering the leave. Likewise, if an employee's parent, spouse, or child gets the virus, this could also be a qualifying event, with physician documentation.


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