Breaking Down COVID-19

Expect ill workers to miss two weeks of work, experts say, and reconsider the ‘open office’

By Eve Glicksman March 6, 2020
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​The novel coronavirus has taken the U.S. by surprise. What started out in December as a modest outbreak in Wuhan, China, is now an epidemic making rounds throughout the world.

COVID-19 is the disease caused by a new virus from the large family of coronaviruses that cause a range of illnesses, including the common cold. "CO" stands for "corona," "VI" for "virus," "D" for "disease," and 19 for 2019, when it was discovered.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) anticipate that some disruption to the workplace is inevitable as COVID-19 spreads in the U.S. Workers at greatest risk of COVID-19 exposure, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are those in health care, death care, laboratories, airline operations, border protection, and solid waste and wastewater management. Developing and manufacturing a vaccine to prevent the disease will likely take a year or more.

SHRM Online invited three experts to respond to questions about the virus and share tips on preparing your workplace for a possible outbreak.

How do you become infected by the coronavirus?

COVID-19 is transmitted through close contact with someone who has it. If an infected person sneezes, coughs or exhales within three to six feet of you, the expelled fluid droplets could land in your mouth or nose and be inhaled.

You can also become infected after touching any surface contaminated with the coronavirus and then touching your face. If you wash your hands properly before touching your eyes, nose or mouth, though, you can eliminate that risk.

What can employees do to protect themselves?

Other than thoroughly washing your hands and maintaining typical hygiene practices, "getting your flu vaccine is critical," said Aaron Glatt, M.D., a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

While it won’t protect you against COVID-19, the fewer people who get respiratory illness, the less need there will be for quarantine and testing, said Glatt, an epidemiologist and chair of medicine at Mount Sinai-South Nassau in New York.

For how long are people sick after contracting COVID-19?

In 80 percent of cases, COVID-19 symptoms are mild and flu-like, requiring no special treatment for recovery. "Expect up to a two-week absence," said Chad Sanborn, M.D., an infectious disease specialist in Palm Beach County, Fla. People should be symptom-free for 24 hours before returning to work, he says. Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions tend to suffer severe symptoms that may require hospitalization and longer recovery time.

Are there ways to make the physical workspace safer?

Working in an open office is the biggest fear employees have about their risk of getting sick, according to a survey from PR firm Bospar. But any building without good ventilation recirculates "bad air," so WHO recommends opening windows and doors whenever possible.

Another maintenance tip: "Make sure cleaning crews are using agents compliant with CDC recommendations," said Rishi Desai, M.D., MPH, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Osmosis in Berkeley, Calif.

Employers can also think about staggering shifts and workdays to limit the number of people in the workspace, Sanborn suggested.

What's the outlook?

Desai believes the virus may be more widespread than we think because the test used to diagnose it has a large margin of error in the early course of disease.

Sanborn maintained, "The great majority of people will be fine even if they get [COVID-19]. We need to be cautious, but a lot of fear is misguided. It comes from our not knowing the full scope of this just yet."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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