Media reports of a respiratory illness caused by a newly discovered coronavirus are pervasive and relentless. How concerned should employers be about infections at your workplace or jobsite?
By the end of January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considered the new coronavirus a very serious public health threat, but the immediate health risk to the general American public remains low.
The CDC monitors the number of confirmed and potential cases of the newly discovered virus in the United States. As of January 31, there are just a handful of confirmed cases in the United States and fewer than 100 patient samples awaiting testing. Cases have been confirmed in Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington state.
The CDC deployed teams to those states to assist health departments with clinical management, contact tracing, and communications.
Thousands of infections with the “2019 Novel Coronavirus” (2019-nCoV) were first identified by public health officials in Wuhan, China. Coronaviruses can cause diseases in birds and animals that include the common cold.
Employers should regularly check the CDC’s website to stay informed about the outbreak. The CDC continually updates its site with public information. Epidemiologists and infectious disease researchers are still learning new information about 2019-nCoV. They have not yet determined how easily the infection spreads from person to person.
Are U.S. employees at risk? The risk depends on industry and occupation. Some people, like healthcare workers caring for 2019-nCoV patients and close contacts will have an increased risk of infection. Others who may be more likely to encounter the virus include airline workers, border security personnel, and any business travelers who visit areas affected by the virus. However, the immediate health risk for the general public in the United States from 2019-nCoV is currently considered low because most people are unlikely to be exposed to the virus.
Coronaviruses are common in many different species of mammals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Animal coronaviruses can, but rarely do, infect people. The process of an animal contagion infecting humans is called “zoonosis,” and diseases that make the jump from animals to humans are called “zoonotic diseases.” Once a disease makes the jump to humans, it sometimes can spread between people.
Zoonotic diseases caused by coronaviruses have included Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), first identified in 2002 in Southern China. The 2019 coronavirus is a betacoronavirus like MERS and SARS, all of which have their origins in bats. Infectious disease researchers concluded SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans, and MERS made the jump from dromedary camels to humans.
Many of the first patients diagnosed with 2019-nCoV in the initial outbreak of respiratory illness in Wuhan, China, had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. Live animals were slaughtered in the market for human consumption. The market was closed for cleaning and disinfection. Chinese public health officials later reported sustained person-to-person transmission in communities in China.
Coronavirus infections commonly include respiratory symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties, as well as fever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More severe cases can result in pneumonia, kidney failure, and even death.EHS Daily Advisor