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If Coronavirus is Declared a Pandemic, What Do You Need to Know?

February 27, 2020

By Anthony Kaylin, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Currently, the Coronavirus is slowing down in China but is seeing increasingly greater spreading to other parts of the world.  As of Monday, Chinese official figures released showed there had been 409 new cases of the Novel Coronavirus and 150 new deaths from the outbreak in China, bringing the total confirmed cases to 77,150, with a cumulative death toll of 2,592.

China’s leaders postponed the National People’s Congress because of the outbreak. WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the peak in China occurred between January 23rd to February 2nd, and the number of new cases there has been declining steadily since then.  “This virus can be contained,” he told reporters in Geneva, praising China for helping to prevent an even bigger spread of the disease through unprecedented lockdowns and quarantines in or near the outbreak’s epicenter.

Outside of China, ten towns in Italy are on lockdown.  111 people have tested positive for the respiratory illness, with five deaths, making it Europe’s worst-hit country.  Of those cases, 89 are in the region of Lombardy, 17 in Veneto, two in Emilia Romagna, one in Piemonte, and two in Rome. In Iran, there are now 64 cases, with 12 deaths reported connected to coronavirus, but the reporting is spotty. South Korea announced Monday that it now has 833 confirmed cases of Novel Coronavirus, seven of which have resulted in deaths. Afghanistan reported its first case. State media in Kuwait and Bahrain reported new cases as well.

In Michigan, 325 individuals are being monitored for the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet declared the virus a pandemic, but is close to doing so.  Only WHO can declare a pandemic.   A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.   An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity. Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses. For example, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a Coronavirus, called SARS-associated Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and was declared a pandemic in 2003.

Another pandemic was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-related Coronavirus or MERS-CoV in 2012, which is a zoonotic virus, which means it is a virus that is transmitted between animals and people. Studies have shown that humans are infected through direct or indirect contact with infected dromedary camels. MERS-CoV has been identified in dromedaries in several countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

HR should be up to date on helpful resources to assist employers protect their employees and plan for future outbreaks or spread of the illness including:

(CDC) Travel Alerts

In addition, ASE has a sample pandemic policy and a sample business continuity plan that can be modified for the employer’s use. 

Finally, HR should be cognizant of HIPPA privacy rules, which may come into effect when an employee is possibly infected.  First, the HIPAA Privacy Rule applies only to disclosures made by employees, volunteers, and other members of a covered entity’s or business associate’s workforce.  Second. HIPPA only applies to personal health information (“PHI”)—i.e., individually identifiable health information that is maintained or transmitted by a covered entity. 

However, there is a HIPPA exception for employers regarding PHI when records are needed for the employer to carry out its obligations under the FMLA, ADA, and similar laws.  It also includes files or records related to occupational injury, disability insurance eligibility, sick-leave requests, drug screenings, workplace medical surveillance, and fitness-for-duty tests of employees. Thus, an employer may disclose an employee’s health information to anyone in a position to prevent or lessen the serious and imminent threat, including family, friends, co-workers, caregivers, and law enforcement, without an employee’s permission.  Yet HR needs to be careful walking the line, especially if the release of information could be detrimental to an employee and other employee’s relationship with that employee.  If a pandemic occurs, it will be important to work with legal counsel to ensure that no other laws, state or federal, or anything otherwise could cause the employer liability.

Additional ASE Resources
ASE Coronavirus Updates – ASE has created a web page to keep our members updated on the Coronavirus.  The page can be found here and is updated twice weekly.

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