With infections in China and other countries, including some confirmed cases in the United States, federal agencies are offering guidance to U.S. businesses and employers on how to plan and respond to the spread of the strain of coronavirus known as COVID-19. This includes information to employers from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These guidelines recommend strategies that employers can implement right now, and the agencies also strongly encourage employers to formulate, in advance, an infectious disease outbreak response plan.

While much is still unknown about how the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread, according to these agencies, “infected people can spread COVID-19 through their respiratory secretions, especially when they cough or sneeze.” According to the CDC, infection from person-to-person is most likely among close contacts (about 6 feet). Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.

The CDC provides the following statement as an overview on planning for a possible outbreak in the U.S.: “The severity of illness or how many people will fall ill from COVID-19 is unknown at this time. If there is evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., employers should plan to be able to respond in a flexible way to varying levels of severity and be prepared to refine their business response plans as needed. For the general American public, such as workers in non-healthcare settings and where it is unlikely that work tasks create an increased risk of exposures to COVID-19, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low. The CDC and its partners will continue to monitor national and international data on the severity of illness caused by COVID-19, will disseminate the results of these ongoing surveillance assessments, and will make additional recommendations as needed.”

Thus, it is important to monitor the CDC’s site for updates.

According to the agencies, some recommended strategies for employers to use right now include:

Actively encourage sick employees to stay home

  • Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
  • Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
  • Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.

Emphasize respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees

Perform routine environmental cleaning

  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.

Advise employees to take certain steps before traveling

  • Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices before any business travel, especially to overseas locations.
  • Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness before starting travel and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick. Ensure employees who become sick while traveling or on temporary assignment understand that they should notify their supervisor and should promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed.

The federal agencies also offer recommendations for formulating an infectious disease outbreak response plan, including, but not limited to:

  • Explore whether you can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees and others if state and local health authorities recommend the use of social distancing strategies. For employees who are able to telework, supervisors should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved.
  • Establish a process to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plans and latest COVID-19 information. Anticipate employee fear, anxiety, rumors, and misinformation, and plan communications accordingly.
  • In some communities, early childhood programs and K-12 schools may be dismissed, particularly if COVID-19 worsens. Determine how you will operate if absenteeism spikes from increases in sick employees, those who stay home to care for sick family members, and those who must stay home to watch their children if dismissed from school. Businesses and other employers should prepare to institute flexible workplace and leave policies for these employees.

Issues that can arise when employers formulate a response to the spread of an infectious disease can potentially implicate aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While not directly responsive to the current outbreak of COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued technical assistance guidelines a number of years ago in response to severe outbreaks of influenza, more commonly known as the flu, and the guidance is generally applicable to the current situation, including the assessment of “direct threat” under the ADA.