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What You Need to Know about the New Coronavirus

A new virus first identified in Wuhan, China in 2019 has been spreading across the globe over the past few weeks. Media coverage of this news can be alarming, especially given that several infected individuals have been identified in the U.S.

employers deal with coronavirus

On January 31, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared this coronavirus a public health emergency and ordered any U.S. citizens returning from the center of the outbreak in China to be quarantined for up to two weeks.

On February 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called this coronavirus “a very serious public health threat.”

Despite these pronouncements, there is currently no need to be overly concerned. As you monitor the situation, it’s a good idea to be aware of how to protect your home and workplace

What is this coronavirus?

As the name suggests, coronaviruses are shaped like a crown. The common cold is a coronavirus. More severe coronaviruses include SARS-CoV and 2012’s MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

The new coronavirus, called 2019-nCoV, is an infection similar to pneumonia. Symptoms are similar to the flu.

How to respond to this coronavirus

Employers may face various challenges due to the new outbreak, ranging from curtailing travel to China to facing requests for leave from employees if they or their families become ill.

Employers should review their leave policies and assure that they are flexible enough to accommodate workers’ needs as well as business needs during this time.

Employers may also wish to consider promoting healthy behaviors, including obtaining flu shots and taking everyday preventive actions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. The CDC has information about how to prevent the spread of illness, including recommendations that individuals stay home when sick and clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs.

Employers and other sponsors of group health plans may wish to educate their people about 2019-nCoV to allay their fears. Sharing the CDC’s FAQ and posting it near restroom sinks may be helpful.

Federal government resources

The CDC has posted answers to frequently asked questions about 2019-nCoVare and other materials on its website. Among other things, the CDC recommends that individuals do not travel to China, do not use facemasks to prevent the spread of 2019-nCoV and do not show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a webpage on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus that provides an overview for workers and employers. OSHA notes, “most American workers are not at significant risk of infection.”

HHS has published a bulletin on HIPAA Privacy and Novel Coronavirus that covers sharing and safeguarding patient information. The bulletin clarifies that, for most disclosures, health plans must make reasonable efforts to limit the information disclosed to that which is the “minimum necessary” to accomplish the purpose.

Information may only be shared for treatment, payment, or health care operations purposes, or to a public health authority as required by law. In general, disclosure of specific information about treatment of an identifiable patient may not be done without the patient’s written authorization or the written authorization of a person who is a legally authorized to make healthcare decisions for the patient.

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