CDC Official Updates HR Professionals on Coronavirus Impact

 

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Public health officials are still learning critical information about how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic—and HR professionals need to check in frequently to learn about the latest recommendations.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have partnered to provide monthly updates on how the evolving crisis is impacting the world of work and what HR professionals and managers need to know.

"Since our last SHRM/CDC webcast, much has changed in the world," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's president and CEO, during an April 9 webcast. He noted that many states, counties and cities have issued stay-at-home orders; the federal government has passed "bold and unprecedented" legislation to protect businesses, families and the economy; and states have significantly expanded unemployment and other benefits.

"Everyone is navigating a new world of work," Taylor said. "I'm so proud of how the HR profession is rising to the challenge."

Dr. Jay C. Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, encouraged people to regularly visit the CDC's website for national updates and the World Health Organization's website for a global perspective on the pandemic.

Here are some developments that Butler said will impact HR and the workplace.


SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Transmission

The virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. Droplets can generally travel about six feet before gravity brings them to the ground. "So the greatest risk of infection is being within six feet of one another," Butler said. "And this is one of the foundational precepts of social distancing."

There are additional ways to spread the virus, including by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your face. That's why the CDC recommends that people wash their hands frequently and adequately with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Other modes of transmission appear to be less significant, Butler said, but experts are still learning about this new coronavirus and how it spreads. "It's very humbling both to see how fast we can learn things but then also how quickly that can change as we learn more."

Can the virus contaminate food? "That appears to be unlikely," he said. "But we have to keep our minds open to other possible modes of transmission as well."

Is your work-from-home feline co-worker at risk for contracting the virus? "At this time we don't know what role animals—particularly cats—can play in terms of being at risk of infection," Butler said. There are no documented cases in the U.S. of COVID-19 transmission from pets to humans. But the case of Nadia, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo that tested positive for COVID-19, raises questions about what role animals can play in transmission.

"The role of animals at this point in time seems to be fairly limited," Butler said. But he did recommend that people use face covers and avoid contact with household pets, particularly cats, if they are symptomatic.

Cloth Masks

Can the virus be spread by people who are infected but show no symptoms? "There's an increasing body of evidence that that indeed does happen," Butler said. So the CDC is now recommending that people wear cloth face-covers, particularly when they go to the store or when they are working in public-facing positions. This can help slow the spread and flatten the curve.

Instructions are available on the CDC website about how to make a mask. "You can make a fashion statement with it," Butler joked.

"It's critical to understand," he noted, "there's very little evidence that it will actually protect the wearer." Rather, the cloth mask can help prevent an infected person from spreading the virus, so wearing a cloth face-covering is a community-cooperation measure to help protect each other.

Since people may not show symptoms, Butler said, everyone should take precautions as if they have the virus.

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The CDC recommends against wearing N95 surgical masks, which may protect the wearer, because they are in short supply and needed at medical facilities.  

The ultimate goal is to minimize the number of people who are sick at any given time to get them the care they need without further overwhelming the health care system.

Returning to Work

SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, noted that HR professionals want to know what has to happen before employees can return to the physical workplace.

Butler said the number of cases has to decline to reach the goal of flattening the curve and lessening the burden on health care facilities. The dynamics of transmission aren't the same in every community, so some areas may be able to scale back sooner than others. That's why employers should track state and local updates.

Butler recognized that economic challenges have an impact on health, too, and noted that officials need to balance the need to limit transmission with the goal of getting life back to normal.

When businesses return to regular operations, they should continue to follow the CDC's recommendations by making hand-sanitizing products available, maintaining social distancing and encouraging remote work as much as possible, and asking employees to wear face-coverings, particularly if they are public-facing.

Employers should also actively encourage sick employees to stay home, maintain flexible sick leave policies that are consistent with public health guidance and review new guidelines for safely managing essential employees who have been exposed to the virus.

Taylor, SHRM's president, said business leaders are turning to HR professionals to guide them through this difficult time. "While none of us know when we will get back to a more recognizable life, I'm confident that when this pandemic is behind us, business leaders all over the world will still be looking to SHRM and our profession for the game plan for returning to what will certainly be a new normal."

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