The COVID-19 outbreak was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, due to it being a virus that rapidly spreads from person to person, is highly contagious, and, to date, no vaccine has been identified to slow it down or stop it.
While the coronavirus started in China, once it arrived in the U.S., it rapidly spread: the number of Americans coming down with it and dying has exceeded both China and Italy.
It’s no surprise that history repeats itself. In 1918, 102 years ago, an influenza pandemic hit globally, caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is no universal consensus as to the origin of that virus, it spread worldwide between 1918-1919, claiming about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population. In the U.S., it was first identified in spring 1918 in military personnel and claimed about 675,000 lives.
Today, with no vaccine yet identified to counter the coronavirus, it seems the same precautions are recommended in terms of dodging COVID-19 as the H1N1 virus of 1918: isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limiting public gatherings.
Sadly, COVID-19 has hit us hard, both economically and personally.
Can Your Business Survive COVID-19?
Deciding whether to keep your business open directly impacts your customers’ and employees’ safety. Both can become exposed to COVID-19 and transmit the virus before showing any symptoms. As a result, hard choices have to be made. Is your business non-essential, non-life-sustaining? Even “essential” businesses may need to change their operational model during the pandemic. One example is that, while customers shouldn’t patronize restaurants, food establishments can still deliver or offer take-out service.
Does Your Business Have a Crisis Plan in Place?
- Do you have an infectious disease preparedness plan that can be implemented as it relates to COVID-19?
- In what ways are you reducing employees’ (and customers’) exposure to the coronavirus?
- Are you educating your employees on ways they can reduce transmission of the coronavirus?
- What steps are you taking to maintain a healthy workplace environment through proper cleaning and sanitation, telework options, and urging workers to stay home, if sick?
- How are you responding/handling those employees who show up virus positive in the workplace?
Look to OSHA for General Guidelines for Help with Handling COVID-19
The OSHA website (osha.com) is an excellent resource for obtaining basic rules that employers and employees can refer to help them stay safe during this pandemic. OSHA recommends that “employers of workers with potential occupational exposures to coronavirus” should:
- Assess the hazards to which workers may be exposed.
- Evaluate the risk-level exposure.
- Select, implement, and ensure workers use controls to prevent exposure, including physical barriers to manage the spread of the virus; social distancing; and appropriate personal protective equipment, hygiene, and cleaning supplies.
It can’t be stressed enough that workplace employers and employees need to:
- Engage in hand washing with soap and hot water for a minimum of 20 seconds.
- Grab a paper towel to turn off the faucet after hands are clean to avoid reinfection.
- When soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
- An alternative to disinfecting, according to the CDC, is to use household (3%) hydrogen peroxide. It deactivates the rhinovirus (the common cold). Considering the rhinovirus is more difficult to destroy, it should be able to breakdown the coronavirus in less time. Pour undiluted hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle, spray on a surface, and leave for at least one minute.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- If you need to cough, cough into your elbow.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
When an Employee or Client Tests Positive for the Coronavirus
If an employee becomes ill with COVID-19, or the health department contacts you regarding someone who visited your facility and has tested positive for the virus, additional action must to be taken immediately:
- Dismiss your employees and have them quarantine at home. Then, deep clean and disinfect the workplace.
- Under the confidentiality provisions of HIPAA and related laws, “only those who ‘need to know’ may know about the diagnosis.” Identify and inform employees who are likely to have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19, then notify the employee’s supervisor that an employee has tested positive. Be discrete when communicating with your team regarding the situation.
- Ask employees who may have been in contact with the virus to self-isolate for 14 days and conduct self-monitoring for any symptoms, which means routinely taking their temperature. If the employees feel well enough, let them know they can work from home and inform them that they must not reenter the workplace any earlier than 14 days.
- Follow any additional guidelines recommended by your local public health authorities.
Recommendations for High-Risk Industries/Workers
Select workers are likely to perform job duties that put them in medium, high, or very high occupational risk exposure. Many critical sectors rely on these workers to continue their operations. If you operate a high-risk business, you will need to take extra precautions to protect your employees, due to the accelerated risk related to your employees performing their jobs. You may need to provide specialized training, teach additional procedures, and/or instruct them on the use of additional equipment. OSHA recommends these guidelines for industries, including those who work in:
- Emergency response/public safety
- Post-mortem care
- Airline operations
- Retail operations
- Border protection/transportation security
- Correctional facility operations
- Solid waste/wastewater management
- Environmental services (e.g., janitorial)
- In-home repair services
- Travel to areas where the virus is spreading
Plus, in the instance where there is no specific exposure hazard to employers and workers, it’s still important to keep up-to-date regarding ever-evolving community transmission. Changes in community transmission may warrant additional precautions in some workplaces or for workers not mentioned above. Routinely check the OSHA (osha.com) and CDC (cdc.com) websites related to COVID-19 for updates.