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News about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), commonly known as the “Wuhan Coronavirus,” was first reported in the Wuhan Province of China and has dominated the headlines for days.  Over 4,500 cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have now been confirmed in Mainland China, with 106 people dead as fatalities continues to rise. The virus has some link to a local, large Wuhan seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. However, a growing number of patients have reportedly had no exposure to the animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread is occurring. 

Full or partial lockdowns have been put in place in 15 Chinese cities to quarantine those who may be affected to limit the spread of the virus. Regardless of where the virus originated, it has quickly become an international concern. Some experts are skeptical whether travel restrictions or quarantine barriers will prove effective. Approximately 5 million people left the Wuhan Province, before travel outside the region was restricted. “You can’t board up a germ. A novel infection will spread,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. “It will get out; it always does.”

And it has gotten out. More than 50 cases of the virus have been reported worldwide including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Several countries are attempting to extradite their citizens currently living in China, while others are strongly advising against non-essential travel there. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed 5 cases of the coronavirus here in the United States (). The five US patients who all recently traveled to Wuhan, China are currently being held in hospital isolation.  These patients are in Los Angeles; Maricopa County, Arizona; Orange County, California; Everett, Washington; and Chicago.  The CDC has received approximately 100 samples from 26 states for testing, with so far 5 testing positive for the virus.

Coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. Most people will be infected with these viruses at some point in their lives, with illnesses typically lasting for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include, runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever and a general feeling of being unwell. Human coronaviruses can quickly progress to a lower-respiratory tract illness, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, more common in people with cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), people with weakened immune systems, infants and older adults.  Suspected patients with the virus would eventually exhibit a cough and/or difficulty breathing, accompanied by fever. Although most deaths from the Coronavirus have been in older individuals, many with pre-existing health conditions, one of the most recent fatalities was of a 37-year old male

Most concerning, Chinese health officials have recently stated the coronavirus is capable of transmission even before a patient begins to show symptoms, which can be one to 14 days after contraction.

This makes this virus even that more subject to spread geographically, since routine screening of travelers for elevated body temperature may not identify someone who has recently contracted the coronavirus and in the early stages of illness.  Further compounding this problem, a shortage of medical screening kits needed to rapidly diagnose the coronavirus as it spreads across China has impeded the country’s ability to screen infected citizens, raising concerns that the number of cases has been dramatically underreported. Even though China’s Medical Products Administration has reported the approval of 4 coronavirus detection kits (including one that sequences the genetic makeup of the virus), China’s 3 leading medical device manufacturers stated that they do not have the capacity to rapidly produce the screening tool products. Residents in Wuhan and other Chinese provinces who arrived at hospitals seeking testing were informed that corona virus screening kits were not available.

Despite the ominous headlines, other experts caution not to panic. Implementations have been put in place here in the United States in an effort to protect the public. Doctors are asking patients with respiratory illness symptoms if they have recently traveled to China.  If the answer is “yes,” they are immediately quarantined.  US airports are also screening passengers for the coronavirus, specifically those coming from China.

So, What Can Be Done from a Business Continuity Standpoint in the Early Stages of the Wuhan Coronavirus Spread? 
First, tourists and business professionals should avoid travel to Wuhan, China when at all possible.  Employees should avoid any possible infection and close contact with people who appear sick.  Strict hand washing is always good practice. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Additionally, respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette are important practices to protect the virus from spreading. Like hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene is part of standard precautions that should be taken to prevent viral transmission. When tissues are not available, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or sleeve and avoid using your hands, turning away from other people. The CDC is reporting that as of January 24, flu activity is widespread in 48 states with Washington State and Hawaii showing regional activity. Anyone suffering from flu symptoms is encouraged to see their health care provider and remain out of work until they are fever free for 24 hours.

Is Your Company Prepared for the Wuhan Coronavirus with a Business Continuity Plan In-Place?
In today’s world of global commerce and frequent travel, one of these confirmed cases could be your employee. Are you prepared? How long has it been since you have re-evaluated your Business Continuity Plan? Many companies integrated infectious disease into their Continuity Plans several years back due to concerns surrounding Pandemic Influenza. These Plans provide a template for including contingency measures associated with the spread of the coronavirus. If you haven’t integrated this new business risk into your planning process, it’s time to do so. Even if you did fold Pandemic Influenza into the umbrella of Business Continuity Planning during that time, it seems now would be a good time to review and update it, given the rapidly unfolding series of events.

EI’s next blog will address some key elements of a Business Continuity Plan, aimed at preparing your operation in the event the Coronavirus continues to spread worldwide and specifically if it becomes a significant health concern in the US. In the meantime, if you have any concerns regarding the Wuhan Coronavirus, business contingencies if it continues to spread or simply general workforce health concerns, please contact our Occupational Health team at 800.717.3472.