Coronavirus and Outbreak Preparation

If you’ve turned on the TV or opened a newspaper or web browser in the last month or so, you’ve heard of what the media is calling “the coronavirus,” a disease outbreak originating in Wuhan, China. The truth is that right now, here in the Upper Midwest of the U.S., most of us have much more to fear from seasonal influenza (that is, the flu) than from the coronavirus. But with the outbreak dominating the news, people are understandably nervous. What should employers be doing to make sure they’re prepared for this?

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published guidelines for employers regarding the coronavirus, called “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), February 2020.” (COVID-19 is the formal name for the disease—a “coronavirus” can actually refer to any one of a class of viruses, named for the shape of the virus particles—but we’ve all heard “coronavirus” in the news, so we’ll keep using that here.) The guidance can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/guidance-business-response.html. The CDC stresses that the situation is fluid and the guidance will be updated as new information becomes available, but as of this writing, here are some key takeaways.

An initial concern should be obvious, but it’s worth remembering: it’s important to ensure that no one in the organization is using the coronavirus as an excuse to engage in discriminatory or stigmatizing behavior, intentionally or otherwise. While having recently traveled to China can make an employee a risk, of course being from China—or anything about the employee’s race or national origin—cannot. It’s also important to respect employee confidentiality with respect to their health status and records.

Much of the rest of the CDC’s guidance reflects generally applicable best practices to prevent the spread of illness in the workplace (which makes it that much more worth reviewing), including:

  • Send any employee showing signs of respiratory illness home (whether he or she wants to leave or not), and insist that they stay home until they’ve been free of fever or symptoms for 24 hours, and talk with companies your business works with about doing the same;
  • Post notices regarding staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the worksite (the CDC website has resources for each of these things); and
  • Perform routine cleaning on frequently-touched surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops, and provide disposable wipes near those areas so that employees can wipe them down before use.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers have a general duty to provide a safe and healthful workplace that is free from recognized hazards, so if you are aware of an employee showing signs of a respiratory illness or another illness you believe is contagious, you may have a duty to send that employee home, even if the employee would rather stay and work, to protect your other employees. Care needs to be taken with employees with chronic illnesses, however, as those can lead to exposure to disability discrimination claims.

The CDC also recommends that employers take certain precautions with respect to employees who have traveled out of the country, or who are going to travel at all. The CDC currently recommends postponing all nonessential travel to China. The CDC also cautions that there have been signs of community spread of the coronavirus to Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, though the spread to those areas is not severe enough at this time for the CDC to recommend avoiding travel. It is reasonable to ask an employee returning from one of these higher-risk areas to stay home for a few days to ensure that he or she is not showing signs of a respiratory illness.

Finally, the CDC recommends creating an infectious disease outbreak response plan, to protect their workforce from coronavirus or any future outbreak. More information and the CDC’s recommendations are available on the CDC’s website.

If you need help making sure your workforce is protected from the coronavirus, potential infectious disease outbreak, or more common workplace hazards like the flu, please contact William Parker (952-921-4602 or wparker@prkalaw.com) or any other attorney at Peters, Revnew, Kappenman & Anderson, P.A.

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