CDC Official Asks Employers to Do All They Can to Slow Coronavirus

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland March 11, 2020
sign outside Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

​As U.S. cases multiply, the federal response to the coronavirus crisis is moving into a new phase—trying to slow the inevitable spread so that communities and health care professionals are not overwhelmed, a top official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told HR professionals Tuesday.

During a webcast by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Dr. Jay C. Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, spelled out the rationale for his agency's repeated calls for employers to consider generous sick-leave policies, rethink large gatherings, and communicate the importance of proper hand washing and sanitization.

The virus, which only became known 10 weeks ago, has already killed more than 3,800 people worldwide and infected more than 110,000. Officials are aware of more than 700 cases and 26 deaths in the U.S., including some patients who were infected locally. 

Butler said the human population appears to be highly susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and he expects that it will be around for a long time, eventually infecting people in every part of the world. The more slowly this happens, the more time health officials will have to treat the sick and develop a vaccine.

"Picture a month or six months and an equal number of cases. We'd rather they occur over a longer period of time," he told approximately 40,000 webcast listeners. "The goal of mitigation is to not overwhelm society with millions of people being sick at the same time."

To that end, Butler said the most important thing employers can do at this time is encourage sick employees to stay home. They must act quickly, at the first sign of illness, because the virus appears to be most contagious in the first days that a person is sick. "Some of your workers may want to tough it out, but this is not a good time for that," Butler said. "It's important to communicate as early as possible and have flexible telework options so people can minimize their contact at the early phase."

[SHRM members-only form: Notice of Workplace Exposure to a Communicable Disease]

He also reiterated the need for routine environmental cleaning, especially wiping down any high-touch surfaces, such as door handles, remote controls and elevator buttons, with bleach or alcohol-based wipes. The virus can survive on hard surfaces for minutes, hours, even days, depending on the type of surface, temperature and humidity. Although no such cases have been confirmed to date, Butler said "we're assuming it is possible that transmission may occur via surfaces."

Butler and SHRM leaders answered more than a dozen questions from employers, from the usefulness of facemasks (not recommended for healthy people in public) to infection from shipping containers and mail from China (no evidence of this occurring). To watch a recording of the webcast, click here.

The CDC has extensive guidance available for employers and others on its website. SHRM also has a large library of coronavirus-related resources, some available only to members. "The decisions you make in the coming days and weeks with have long term impacts on your businesses and your employees," said SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP.

Butler said employers who learn that an employee may have been infected with the coronavirus should work with their state or local health department to determine the course of action. Health officials are still trying to determine how long a person with the disease is contagious. "In general, we're thinking at least 14 days after onset of symptoms and three days after symptoms have resolved. Bottom line, this is probably not a 24-hour bug."

[Read the transcript of the SHRM and CDC webcast]

Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, chief knowledge officer at SHRM, noted that employers have an obligation to notify other employees and customers who may have been in contact with a sick employee. And they should encourage sick workers to stay home by using paid time off, allowing them to go into a negative leave balance or exploring short-term disability. Employers also could choose to pay them if there is no other leave available.

"That's a trend we're seeing," Alonso said. "Many are paying their employees [to stay home] because they can't afford exposure to a possible epidemic."



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