“We need to think very carefully about how we discuss the coronavirus so that we are being realistic and proactive, but without causing undue emotional distress and concern over it,” declares Dr. Kara A. Cecil, a public health specialist and associate professor at the University of Indianapolis.
She shared that message and practical tips with a packed house at the Indiana Chamber’s annual Indiana Safety and Health Conference in late February. Cecil specifically went into great detail on infectious disease transmittal, prevention methods and the business impacts.
Below are the Top 10 takeaways from her session, as well as a brief Q&A with the Indiana Chamber specifically for the Hoosier business community. For the most up-to-date information on the coronavirus, web sites to frequent include the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indiana State Department of Health.
THINGS TO KNOW / STEPS TO TAKE
- It can take up to 14 days after exposure for a person to show symptoms of the coronavirus or test positive. That long period means diagnosis (which can mimic flu), self-isolation and reporting are crucial to stopping the community spread.
- Viruses that are transmitted via droplets, like the coronavirus and many others, can linger in the air for several hours. Cecil gave the example of someone coughing over supermarket produce and you unwittingly stopping at the same spot a short time later.
- Washing hands in hot/warm soapy water frequently is notably preferred over hand sanitizer, which should be considered a last resort. That may be new information for most of us. However, if you are in a situation where warm water isn’t available, hand sanitizer is far better than nothing; it just doesn’t kill all germs.
- If the time comes to wear a protective mask, N95 (or N100) are the correct models; they keep out at least 95% of the very tiny air particulates when secured correctly (aka tightly) to the face. Also, you must make sure your hands are clean before you put on the mask. In other words, hand hygiene is imperative.
- They eyes are another port of entry for the coronavirus, so safety glasses or goggles will be useful (again, if the time comes).
- Practice social distancing – aka, if you are sick, please stay home! “A recommendation if you are trying to stop the spread of infectious diseases is that you want to have about six feet between you and someone else. What can I not do at six feet? I can’t shake their hand or even give them a fist bump. This recommendation doesn’t cost a thing and it can be fairly effective at stopping the spread of infectious diseases like the coronavirus, flu and other respiratory conditions.”
- The vast majority of healthy adults in the U.S. should recover with access to proper medical care that we have here, with most being only mildly or moderately impacted. As with other illnesses, if you have a severe underlying condition like heart disease, diabetes or cancer, you are at exponentially higher risk for complications – especially if you have a pre-existing respiratory condition. That’s why total employee wellness matters so much in general.
- Prevention is always the cheaper path. In public health circles, the number is generally three to one – with every dollar spent on prevention saving $3 down the road. And this isn’t even factoring in the invaluable loss of life. It’s the cost of medical care and economic work impacts.
- The annual flu fatality rate is much higher – at 4.2 to 10% in a given year globally. The worldwide death rate from the coronavirus is currently fluctuating between 2 and 2.5%.
- Italy’s statistics encourage Cecil that China may not be hiding the severity of the crisis there after all. Italy, which has seen the next highest number of illnesses and deaths outside of China, is reporting a fatality rate at 2.6% and that isn’t too far off China’s reported 3.5% rate. That gives China’s numbers more credibility, she says. Cecil expects Iran’s death rate to be high, perhaps the highest, because of the lack of quality health care.
What are the top lines for businesses? What should they be doing and talking about to their employees?
“Stay up to date on CDC and WHO guidelines on personal protective equipment, voluntary isolation and flexible work arrangements (which contributes to isolation). If you are in a position where you can influence sick time or flexible work arrangements in high-risk times, maybe that’s when you have that conversation and promote that choice. For many of us, if we have a laptop we can do most of our work at home. So, if that’s something you can facilitate in your workplace, keep that in mind.
“It also depends very much on what the employee does (their job function) and what they can do about it. If you are doing quality inspections right on the ground at your manufacturing plant in China, it’s hard to do that from home, right? So, it depends very much on the work responsibilities … if you can’t do (more precautions), I would do social distancing. That means if I have to go to inspect the place, I’m going to go with PPE (personal protective equipment), a social distancing routine and hand hygiene. I would also avoid some of the hot areas (China, Italy, South Korea). But if I’m not touching, using my protection and if I’m social distancing, that’s going to be helpful.”
How do we walk that fine line of adequately preparing without raising alarm?
“That’s what people and businesses should be asking (and seeking out guidance; see above links). One thing I would say is that the coronavirus gives us an opportunity to discuss infectious diseases (and compare). Seasonal flu is a great example of that. So far, we’ve seen much more significant costs and lives lost from seasonal flu than the coronavirus. The prevention methods are the same. Anything you do to stop the spread of infectious disease is going to be productive, protective against seasonal flu and corona as well. This gives an opportunity to talk about stopping those things. Hand hygiene, droplet protection, identifying high risk people.”
Should we be concerned about the speed of testing or that still only certain places are equipped to do testing for the coronavirus?
“I’m actually not concerned about our ability to test. We tested 426 people and we have 16 confirmed cases (in the U.S.). So, we’re dramatically over testing. Not a problem … much better to be safe. The public health system is really quite efficient at that anyway. We already have a practice for these notifiable diseases in place every day of the year. From a public health surveillance perspective, this really isn’t any different than anything else that we already track. We already have a really good system in place, so that doesn’t concern me at all.”
Do you see this as more an economic crisis or health crisis for the U.S.?
“While I’m not an economist, I do believe this will be more of an economic crisis than a health care crisis. That’s where we’re probably going to feel it, see it more and could take a longer time to recover from. I think that the two-year low (stock market) that we saw this (past) week is a really good indicator of that. We’re coming off of challenging trade relationships with China in the last year period. Now, to put concerns over the infectious disease, the manufacturing process and with them closing plants, that’s going to complicate and delay the global markets.”
What should people, businesses be on the lookout for when this moves to the next level?
“From our perspective, when we start seeing more person-to-person transmission in the United States, that’s the moment that I will have a greater sense of alarm. … If and when that number (really) ticks up, that may be the point to start increasing my attention to that.”
Disclaimer: Dr. Karen A. Cecil is a not a practicing clinical physician.