Statistics Updated June 2, 2020.

On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced an official name for the disease that is causing the novel coronavirus outbreak, first identified in Wuhan China.  The name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated COVID-19. On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic.

The United States now has the most reported COVID-19 cases in the world.  Today, there are more than 1,914,000 confirmed cases.  Updates on these statistics are available on the WHO web page.

With so much information circulating on the Internet and from the news media, it can become a little overwhelming for employers.  So, what do employers need to know?  Below, I provide background information regarding COVID-19 and measures employers can take to protect their employees and satisfy their compliance obligations.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats, and cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).

What is a novel coronavirus?

A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified.  The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.

Why is the disease causing the outbreak now being called COVID-19?

The new name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19.  In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease.   COVID-19 is named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface.  Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV.”

What is the source of the virus?

This new virus was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China and has now been detected in over 122 locations internationally, including cases in the United States. Early on, many of the patients in the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread.  Later, a growing number of patients reportedly did not have exposure to animal markets, indicating person-to-person spread.

How is the virus spread?

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.  Researchers believe that COVID-19 is similar to other coronaviruses. The first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading from person-to-person. According to the WHO, people can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales.  These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person.  Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.  People also can catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) cautions that COVID-19 is an emerging disease and much is still unknown about other ways the disease is transmitted.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Patients with COVID-19 have reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness.  Symptoms can include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. The new virus also has caused severe disease and death in patients who developed pneumonia.  At this time, CDC believes that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure.  Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

Is there a treatment for COVID-19?

There is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19.  However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments.  People with COVID-19 can seek medical care to help relieve symptoms.

How can I prevent COVID-19?

Because there is presently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, the CDC is recommending standard precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, such as washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or if soap is not available, using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol; avoiding close contact with people who are sick; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; staying at home when you are sick; practicing social distancing (keep 6 feet between you and other people when possible); covering your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others; and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

What is the current situation in the United States?

Different parts of the country are seeing different levels of COVID-19 activity. All 50 states have reported cases of COVID-19 to the CDC.  For current information concerning Florida, visit the Florida Department of Health website.

What obligations do U.S. employers have to protect their workers from COVID-19?

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued specific standards regarding COVID-19, in early March it published Guidance for Employers on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.  The Guidance is intended to help employers identify risk levels in workplace settings (e.g., low, medium, high, and very high exposure risks) and to determine any appropriate control measures to implement.  The Guidance also addresses steps all employers can take to reduce workers’ risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, including: developing an infectious disease preparedness and response plan, preparing to implement basic infection prevention measures, developing policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people (if appropriate), and developing, implementing, and communicating to employees about workplace flexibilities and protections.

OSHA’s guidance also highlights the following standards:

  • General Duty Clause: Under the federal OSHA’s General Duty Clause, employers have a duty to furnish “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause the death or serious physical harm to … employees.”
    • In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has issued a Level 3 Travel Warning and recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential international travel. Although the notices do not define “nonessential travel,” requiring employees to travel to Level 3 Travel Zones to engage in nonessential business travel to these countries (or any other areas in which the risk of contagion is heightened) could create risk under the General Duty Clause. Therefore, employers should consider other available options for employees for the duration of the threat (e.g., videoconferencing).
  • Employers in Higher-Risk Industries: OSHA has identified certain industries in which exposure risk may be elevated for some workers, including those involved in:
    • Healthcare;
    • Deathcare;
    • Laboratories;
    • Airline operations;
    • Border protection;
    • Solid waste and wastewater management; and
    • Travel to areas where the virus is spreading.

Employers in these industries should review their policies and procedures concerning infectious disease, and exposure to other biological or chemical agents, and ensure they are disseminated to all workers.  OSHA’s published standards and directives that may apply to worker exposure to COVID-19 can be found on their website.

Are there any other recommendations for employers to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19?

In February, the CDC issued guidance titled Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (the “Guidance”). The Guidance is updated frequently to reflect the increasing spread of COVID-19.

The Guidance provides recommended strategies for employers to use now to prevent workplace exposure to acute respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. It also provides planning considerations to address community spread of COVID-19.

As discussed in the Guidance, to avoid claims of discrimination, do not make determinations of risk based on race or country of origin and maintain confidentiality of employees with confirmed coronavirus infection.

Here are a few highlights of the CDC’s Guidance:

  • Actively encourage employees who have symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, shortness of breath) to stay home. Instruct sick employees to follow CDC-recommended steps and not return to work until the criteria to discontinue home isolation are met in consultation with healthcare providers and state and local health departments.
  • Ensure your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance.
  • Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are visible.
  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops and doorknobs.
  • Advise employees before traveling to check the CDC’s Traveler Health Notices for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which they will travel.
  • Practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet) from others when possible.
  • If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

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The outbreak of COVID-19 is a fluid and rapidly changing situation. On April 16, 2020, the White House unveiled Guidelines for Opening Up America Again. Employers are strongly encouraged to coordinate with state and local health officials and the CDC so timely and accurate information can guide appropriate responses as different localities begin to reopen their economies in the coming weeks and months.  Local conditions will influence the decisions that public health officials make regarding community-level strategies.  Because these strategies often present challenging legal issues in the workplace, employers are encouraged to consult with experienced legal counsel when responding to any issues regarding the novel coronavirus. Good luck and be safe.