With infections in China and other countries, including some confirmed cases in the United States, federal agencies are offering guidance to U.S. businesses and employers on how to plan and respond to the spread of the strain of coronavirus known as COVID-19. This includes information to employers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These guidelines recommend strategies that employers can implement right now, and the agencies also strongly encourage employers to formulate, in advance, an infectious disease outbreak response plan.
While much is still unknown about how the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread, according to these agencies, “infected people can spread COVID-19 through their respiratory secretions, especially when they cough or sneeze.” According to the CDC, infection from person-to-person is most likely among close contacts (about 6 feet). Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.
The CDC provides the following statement as an overview on planning for a possible outbreak in the U.S.: “The severity of illness or how many people will fall ill from COVID-19 is unknown at this time. If there is evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., employers should plan to be able to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of severity and be prepared to refine their business response plans as needed. For the general American public, such as workers in non-healthcare settings and where it is unlikely that work tasks create an increased risk of exposures to COVID-19, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low. The CDC and its partners will continue to monitor national and international data on the severity of illness caused by COVID-19, will disseminate the results of these ongoing surveillance assessments, and will make additional recommendations as needed.”
Thus, it is important to monitor the CDC’s site for updates.
According to the agencies, some recommended strategies for employers to use right now include:
Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees
Perform routine environmental cleaning
Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling
The federal agencies also offer recommendations for formulating an infectious disease outbreak response plan, including, but not limited to:
Issues that can arise when employers formulate a response to the spread of an infectious disease can potentially implicate aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While not directly responsive to the current outbreak of COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued technical assistance guidelines a number of years ago in response to severe outbreaks of influenza, more commonly known as the flu, and the guidance is generally applicable to the current situation, including the assessment of “direct threat” under the ADA.