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Health department official: businesses should start preparing for coronavirus

A key Allegheny County Health
Department official is urging businesses to start making preparations now for
the possibility that coronavirus COVID-19 could impact the region and their
workforce.

It echoes advisories from the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on
Tuesday and the Pennsylvania Department of
Health on Wednesday
, who have said that it’s time to start getting
ready for the possibility that COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS CoV-2
virus, could appear widespread in the United States. The Allegheny County
Health Department and state health officials are monitoring people in the
region who have been traveled to China for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease that have sickened
81,243 people and killed 2,770, mostly in China
.

But the appearance of
COVID-19 elsewhere in the world not tied to Chinese cases, including Iran and
Italy, has led to a ramping up of preparations around the globe, including in
the United States. There have been only 14 confirmed cases in the U.S., all but
two travel-related, and then 39 others of Americans who
have been brought back from Wuhan, China, or the Diamond Princess cruise ship
.

Dr. Kristen Mertz, medical epidemiologist at the
Allegheny County Health Department, told the Business Times on Wednesday that
while there’s the chance the disease may not occur here, it’s time to start
planning. A CDC official on Tuesday said that it was no longer a question of if
COVID-19 will spread in the United States “but rather more a question of
exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have
severe illness.”
 CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said health officials
were asking the public to prepare “in the expectation that this could be
bad,” she told reporters in a conference
call Tuesday
.

“Like the CDC and the
state, we’re trying to expand from just containment (of the disease) to
community mitigation,” Mertz said. “Our plans are to try to make sure
that schools and businesses and health care providers are all preparing for
eventual cases here in Allegheny County.”

Local, state and federal officials,
along with health care providers, have had regular conference calls on
preparations. The playbook they’re using is gleaned from the pandemic flu
guidelines from 2017. That includes stressing personal protective measures like
hand hygiene and staying home when suffering from illness. But that could ramp
up to more stringent restrictions if COVID-19 spreads here, to strategies for
social distancing including potential school closures, postponing large
gatherings, and workplace changes to stop the spread.

“If we start getting a
lot of cases, we’ll have to start thinking about how things will change in the
workplace, will there be teleworking or teleconferencing,” she said. She
said that the measures that were done in China have apparently been effective
in slowing the pace of the epidemic. But it’s too early to determine whether
any will be needed and there’s always the chance that none will be needed.

“That will be a call
that comes later,” she said of social-distancing restrictions.

But she advised businesses to
think about the potential implications of their business if some of their
employees or their employees’ children become ill, and whether there are ways
to use teleconferencing or teleworking to do jobs in the interim. She suggested
that it might also be appropriate to think about more lenient sick-leave
policies, given that current evidence shows that people who have mild cases of
COVID-19 are sick for about two weeks and people with more severe cases are
sick three to five weeks. And close contacts of ill people would also be out
for a minimum of 14 days.

“People could be out for
quite a while,” she said.

She said the more teleworking
and other plans businesses have, the better off they’ll be able to weather the
potential disruptions.

“This may never come to
pass,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s going to die out in the
summer the way some viruses do. Or will we be able to contain it by just doing
what we’re doing? I think the general feeling is that it’s coming and we need
to be prepared.”

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