Coronavirus: 9 Considerations For Businesses

Thursday, March 5, 2020
Blog

With the news of the first infection of Coronavirus (COVID-19) from an unknown origin in the US, combined with the financial impact that is making headline news, is now the time for your business to prepare for the potential spread, and pandemic conditions that could follow? 

While not every company has a comprehensive pandemic plan – especially for a black swan event like this one – they typically do have policies in place for disaster preparedness.  After all, a pandemic can spread like a wildfire, or hit with the force of a hurricane. 

The CDC has already made it clear that they expect COVID-19 to continue to spread.   There is still much unknown about the Novel Coronavirus – especially the potential impact.  Given the abundance of questions, here are some thoughts to help spur questions within your organization about the overall preparedness should this reach pandemic proportions. 

The American Academy of Family Physicians has a clear business planning toolkit for an influenza pandemic.  Their model assumes absenteeism of 40%, due to many issues, and offers great insights for businesses to consider, beyond these items mentioned here.  Similarly, the CDC has its own general Influenza Pandemic guide, as well as a new page to provide interim guidance on COVID-19 with guidance for a business response as well.

If you’re overly concerned on a personal level, here are some items to consider: 

  • Decrease your exposure.  You may go so far as to avoid large social gatherings, air travel, and more.  Don’t panic, but don’t be careless at the same time. 
  • Practice good hygiene at all times.  This includes using alcohol-based hand sanitizer that is >60% alcohol, plus plain old good hand washing technique.  You may wish to trade handshakes for fist bumps.  Also, avoid touching surfaces like your eyes, nose, and mouth unless you’ve just washed/sanitized your hands. 
  • Since the primary treatment for coronavirus is in managing symptoms, you will want to make sure that you have a good supply of items like Tylenol/ibuprofen.  If you have infants/toddlers, ensure that you are also stocked on these as well. 
  • Similarly, since the highest death rates are those with other illnesses/chronic conditions, you will want to make sure that you have a full supply of prescriptions at all times, especially since hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed if it does reach pandemic proportions here in the US.  This is very important for anyone predisposed to respiratory ailments, like asthma, COPD, and more. 
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise.  Keeping a strong immune system is important even without threats like COVID-19. 
  • There are other items you may wish to have, especially if a friend or a family member becomes infected.  This could include everything from gloves and N95 masks, to a sealed room for quarantine and all of the critical clean-up items to follow.   

Remember, simply possessing items isn’t enough. You should know how to use all items properly, so be sure that you seek training if needed.     

Read directions, consult with your doctor, and other professionals.  We’re not doctors, and none of this is intended to provide medical advice. 

Here are some of our considerations for businesses to help prepare… 

1.  Maintain a safe (germ-free) workplace.  Anything employers can do to help control the spread of an illness is at the foundation of protecting against the spread.   

  • Part of maintaining a germ-free workplace can start with your policy/procedure for coming to work (or not) if fallen ill.  This should be included as part of your “Pandemic Flu Leave Policy” in your handbook.  Employers can reach out to us here for sample handbook language – with more on this to follow below. 
  • Making items like hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes readily available year-round is generally recommended – especially during flu season.  Sanitizer should be placed in strategic locations – near entrances, bathrooms, kitchen areas, and more.  Make sure that your wipes are effective based on the threat you are trying to treat. 
  • Employers should also help to make it habitual.  Create a habit for a daily wipe down of “high touch” surfaces like counters, bathrooms, doorknobs, handles (fridge, coffee maker, and more), keyboards, and phones, especially if shared.  
    • Keep supplies on hand, like gloves, masks, etc.  It may even be time to introduce a wellness room, or at the minimum a thermometer or two.  This can be important if someone who felt well before work, suddenly becomes ill during the day.  Anyone infected should mask-up and leave, while others glove-up for clean-up to disinfect, or just call in professionals.  If you plan to stock up on supplies, do it now, as shortages have already struck and will continue to grow. 

2.  Education and reminders.  Continue to educate your company on more than just the illness – but also the resources to assist in the event of potential infection, or just feeling ill. 

  • Businesses should provide reminders about their sick leave/PTO policy, as well as resources for work from home, and more.  Most employers have a handbook addressing these items – now is the time to reference it with employees.  Some may feel the pressure to continue to work through illness – however, businesses should provide every indication that they will support them. 
  • Education can also include cross-training employees on various duties around the workspace – especially for essential functions.  It is far more likely to see absenteeism than there is quarantine or shutdown. 
  • Preparedness can be especially important for those with chronic conditions which can increase the chances of death from COVID-19.  Ready.gov includes a list of recommendations for a pandemic – however, we can’t stress the importance of items like prescription drugs enough.
  • If levels of panic increase, hospitals will be strained (even for false alarms) and those with other life-threatening conditions may not have access to immediate care.
  • Keeping your entire business informed on warning signs, precautions, good personal hygiene, and more can be easy, especially with resources from the CDC.
  • The World Health Organization also has some great informational graphics to consider as well – including those to bust myths surrounding COVID-19. 

3.  Specific benefit reminders.  Along with PTO/Sick Leave, you should be reminding employees about other benefits as well. Now is the time to keep them healthy.

  • Keep in mind, many employees delay seeking care due to the concern of cost – so you should promote low-cost means to stay healthy. 
  • Telemedicine can be one example.  It can be helpful to discuss symptoms/concerns, potentially ruling out COVID-19, but also may be enough to encourage them to seek further care. 
  • If you have a Direct Primary Care provider, now could be a great time to schedule in-office visits.  Even if Coronavirus isn’t a concern, the flu still should be.  If you don’t have one for your business, now could be a great time to consider one. 
  • If there aren’t any DPC providers in your area, consider reaching out to a few local doctors to see if they will make an office-call.  You’d be surprised how many are willing to do this. 
  • As another thought, it could be a great time to invite your retirement advisor into the office to help remind employees about core principals in investing.  It is very difficult to “time the market” with buying/selling of funds in their 401k.  You can even start a challenge in the office to see if folks can win at the “Time the Market Game.” 

4.  Reconsider social and business events. Keeping a safe social distance can be important to remember, depending on where travel may take you.

  • The CDC provides many tips in this area to help isolate and prevent the spread of infection.  If it reaches pandemic proportions, companies may reconsider such events.  This could even include domestic/international corporate travel, conventions, gatherings, school closings, and more. 
  • growing list of canceled events should give everyone pause to reconsider large gatherings.  Similarly, countries are mandating precautions out of an abundance of caution – such as Switzerland who banned events of over 1,000 attendees, including the Geneva Auto Convention.  Some are even questioning whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will come to fruition.
  • You may even consider moving larger internal meetings to a virtual format.  Consider headsets and webcams in the event employees don’t have them already.
  • Additionally, it should be kept in mind that it’s not just people – but also ensuring that you eat well-cooked meat/eggs, and also avoid contact with farm animals.  

5.  Mandatory reporting of illness, care, and vaccinations.  This can be a touchy subject – at a minimum, employer should be ready to have a conversation internally on this, and  of course become educated on the topic.  For any questions, please consult with your labor law professional.    

  • History and precedence does, however, lend some insight, especially from the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, as the EEOC released a bulletin to help employers understand the ground rules regarding mandatory reporting of illnesses.
  • Employers can mandate vaccination (seek legal guidance) however this will be a long way away.  It is speculated that we are still 12-18 months away from seeing a COVID-19 vaccine, however many should still consider the flu a threat, especially given any occupational exposure.  This doesn’t mean that items like influenza and pneumococcal vaccines should be foregone – especially if you are at risk – they just don’t work for 19-nCoV.
  • SHRM has a long list of FAQ’s for Employers available on their website, and the NY Times has a lengthy read on considerations also. 
Confirmed Cases by Country

6.  Supply chain logistics.  Similar to what happens not only before, but during, and after a natural disaster, a pandemic could cause similar issues for businesses due to supply chain disruptions. 

  • Businesses should consider the potential impact, regardless of their line of work.  The impact can be the same if you rely on food to run a restaurant, raw materials to run a factory or paper to feed the copy machine.
  • Start with the basics, and work from there.  Talk with your suppliers to understand their contingency plans.  This could even include more frequent cleaning from a janitorial company or considering short-term storage space for materials for your business.
  • Having a plan internally, such as clearly defined roles/responsibilities can be important as well.  This way essential business functions can carry on with a sharing of workloads. 

7.  Quarantines and work from home arrangements.  There are many commonsense items that businesses could consider on this front.  One would be to consider the current ability/inability for members to work from home.  This will be different for manufacturing vs IT services.

  • Keep in mind, there doesn’t need to be a full quarantine to create issues, as even school closures could create gaping issues for employees when it comes to childcare.  Schools have already closed this year in at least five states due to Influenza outbreaks.
  • If some/all employees can work from home, make sure that you have a plan for this.  If employees typically work from desktop workstations, does it make sense to invest in laptops, even temporarily?
  • Some businesses may start doing some shopping on Amazon so that you have a few selected models that could be shipped direct. Many can be found for under $300, like this one.  Do the math for your business to see if it makes sense, regardless if it’s for now, or any other future pandemic/disaster. 
Here is an ADA Compliance Pre-Pandemic Employee Survey that can also easily be uploaded into your HRIS system for a quick survey to help forecast and anticipate absenteeism in the event of a pandemic.

ADA-COMPLIANT PRE-PANDEMIC EMPLOYEE SURVEY

Directions: Answer “yes” to the whole question without specifying the factor that applies to you. Simply check “yes” or “no” at the bottom of the page.

In the event of a pandemic, would you be unable to come to work because of any one of the following reasons:

  • If schools or day-care centers were closed, you would need to care for a child;
  • If other services were unavailable, you would need to care for other dependents;
  • If public transport were sporadic or unavailable, you would be unable to travel to work; and/or;
  • If you or a member of your household fall into one of the categories identified by the CDC as being at high risk for serious complications from the pandemic influenza virus, you would be advised by public health authorities not to come to work (e.g., pregnant women; persons with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV, history of organ transplant or other medical conditions; persons less than 65 years of age with underlying chronic conditions; or persons over 65).

Answer:  YES______  NO_______

8.  Complete shutdowns.  It is far too early to create panic over this topic, but it should be a part of your comprehensive disaster plan.  This would be the ultimate black swan event for a business.   

  • Some employers may even consider a strategic tabletop exercise with key advisors and stakeholders in the room – this could include health benefits advisors, banking team, attorneys, IT support, and more.
  • You should also consult with your business insurance advisor to consider potential outcomes and means of recovery.  Policies are changing to conform with new threats, including some event cancellation policies that now specifically exclude Coronavirus as a covered peril.

Parting notes 

While Coronavirus has not yet been declared a pandemic, it is important to understand the potential impacts.  Keep in mind, if you’re reading this you’ve likely survived a pandemic before. 

The most recent pandemic in the US was the 2009 Flu Pandemic, which was initially known as “swine flu,” later being declared H1N1.  From 2009-2010, it is estimated that there were 60.8M cases, and 12,469 deaths in the US due to the virus – with up to 575,000 deaths worldwide.   

The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 however, claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide.  

These are just some tips to consider regardless of your company’s size, industry, or location.   

The American Academy of Family Physicians has a business planning toolkit for an influenza pandemic.  Their model assumes absenteeism of 40%, due to many issues, and offers great insights for businesses to consider, beyond these items mentioned here. 

We are not disaster preparedness professionals, doctors, lawyers, HR leaders, etc, so please feel free to conduct your research, or let us know if we can help assist with reviewing your benefits to strategically leverage them to keep your people healthy.  

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