Seyfarth Synopsis: The WHO has officially declared COVID-19 to be a global “pandemic,” triggering new considerations for employers.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) released a “breaking” tweet quoting Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General: “We have therefore made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” According to the CDC definition, a “pandemic” refers to (1) a virus that can cause illness or death with (2) sustained person-to-person transmission of that virus and (3) evidence of spread throughout the world. As the WHO has the global reach to demarcate the global spread of the disease, individual countries look to the WHO to confirm a pandemic. The WHO cautioned that health officials have been unable to “control” pandemics in the past, and that “describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this #coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.” Accordingly, the WHO has not made additional recommendations based on the “pandemic” declaration.

As we have previously blogged, the CDC and OSHA have issued guidance on how to “reduce the impact of COVID-19 outbreak conditions on businesses, workers, customers, and the public.” The EEOC had issued prior guidance on employee protections under the ADA in the event of a pandemic. The guidance from the federal agencies puts the burden on employers to identify health hazards specific to their workplaces and determine lawful actions based on the those hazards.