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Since the beginning of 2020, a deadly coronavirus that originated in China has spread rapidly, sending health workers and government officials into a panic. The illness is believed to have originated from a live animal market in Wuhan, where over 40 million people currently remain quarantined in an attempt to contain the outbreak. Although numbers of infected are constantly increasing, there are currently more than 17,000 confirmed cases across China and the world, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the epidemic a global health emergency. 

Experts believe the virus spreads between humans in a way similar to a cold or flu virus, through coughing or sneezing, with an incubation period of between two to 14 days. However, health experts say they do not understand the virus very well at this time.

Infected individuals report fever, coughing, and breathing difficulties, but many only experience mild or no symptoms at all. However, in severe cases, the virus has led to pneumonia, kidney failure, and death. As of February 2, at least 362 deaths from the virus have been confirmed, but only one has been outside of China.


Potential Impacts On Productivity

So far, only 11 cases of coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., but public concern over the coronavirus’ spread remains high.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus symptoms of fever, coughing, and respiratory problems mimic many other common illnesses. This could prompt people to escalate minor health problems (from a cold, for example) by visiting an emergency room when they would have otherwise chosen not. Paranoia over contracting the deadly virus could also increase stress levels, whether the person feels healthy or not.

Companies should recognize that this associated rise in medical expenses or time off is not necessarily within a wellness program’s control, just as a particularly bad season of the flu can result in more sick employees. When evaluating wellness benefits, it is important to consider that these outside factors can reduce savings and decrease productivity from year to year, making it difficult to measure a program’s actual impact.

If the coronavirus were to continue to spread, companies with an older workforce would be more likely to be affected, as the elderly and children are most at risk for experiencing severe side effects. Of course, even younger workers might experience a similar decrease in productivity if they need to take days off to care for children or elderly family members.


Keeping Workers Healthy, Informed

Similar to the flu, employers are not completely helpless when it comes to dealing with coronavirus concerns. It’s important to encourage healthy habits like washing hands or using hand sanitizer, eating a good diet, and exercising regularly. Health education resources and telemedicine options can also be a helpful first step for workers to seek advice without having to first spend the time and money on an in-person medical visit.

Providing safety information for traveling that includes updated health and travel notices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other trusted sources can also help employees make good decisions about travel. As of the end of January 2020, the CDC has issued a level 3 travel warning to China because of the coronavirus outbreak, which discourages all non-essential travel to the area. Encouraging workers to follow that advice and be knowledgeable of any other areas with health risks can help them prepare better, change plans, or take steps to deal with potential exposure.

Companies located in areas with confirmed cases (currently California, Washington, Arizona, and Illinois) or those that have workers that frequently travel to China (either for work or personal reasons) may want to be particularly vigilant about providing these health resources. If it is known that an employee has traveled or plans to travel to China, companies may also want to encourage them to work from home for a period of time before returning to the office.

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