It’s impossible to avoid seeing news about the new coronavirus sweeping across the globe. Since the beginning of 2020, it has generated fear and panic in different parts of the world. It is thought to originate in Wuhan, China and has since spread to many other countries. Because of its highly contagious nature, the disease has been difficult to contain and continues to spread outside its origins in China, killing people in Iran, Italy and South Korea. The World Health Organisation has not yet declared a pandemic, but experts believe it’s only a matter of time.
Although COVID-19 has caused more than 2,700 deaths among the 80,000 people infected globally, the mortality rate remains around 3%. In comparison, the seasonal flue has a mortality rate below 1%, while SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) had a death rate of almost 10%. For developed countries and people without compromised immune systems, the risk associated with contraction and subsequent treatment remains relatively low. Of the 80,000 reported cases, only 2,800 are from outside mainland China. As of 23 February 2020, Australia has reported 23 cases of the virus, with 15 patients now fully recovered.
Th economic impact has been felt most strongly in China, with many factories closed and workers banned from travel between various regions. This has affected the production capacity of many facilities, and there is restricted flow of goods to many international supply chains. Australia has felt the impact particularly in the education sector, with heavy reliance on overseas students from across Asia. Chinese students have not been able to commence 2020 studies, and many universities are concerned that some students may switch their courses to institutions in other jurisdictions that are not restricting attendance for Chinese students. Passenger movements and quarantine arrangements have decreased the flow of tourists across the region, and this is adversely impacting all operators in the sector including flight, land travel, accommodation and experience providers.
There is evidence that the virus spreads from person-to-person, especially in Hubei Province.
The virus is most likely spread through:
- close contact with an infectious person
- contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
- touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face
Surgical masks in the community are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus disease from spreading it to others. If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask as there is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public.
Everyone should practise good hygiene to protect against infections. Good hygiene includes:
- washing your hands often with soap and water
- using a tissue and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- avoiding close contact with others, such as touching
- more about protective measures against coronavirus can be found on the World Health Organization website.
Notes for businesses
Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
- Employees who have symptoms of acute respiratory illness are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are free of fever (37.8° C or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants). Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
- Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
- Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
- Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
Separate sick employees
- Employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately.
- Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).
- Emphasise staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees
- Place posters that encourage staying home when sick, cough and sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene at the entrance to your workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen.
- Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
- Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Soap and water should be used preferentially if hands are visibly dirty.
- Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.
Perform routine environmental cleaning
- Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.
- No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended at this time.
- Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
Advise employees before traveling to take certain steps
- Check the SmartTraveller website for the latest guidance and recommendations for each country to which you will travel.
- Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness before starting travel and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
- Ensure employees who become sick while traveling or on temporary assignment understand that they should notify their supervisor and should promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed.
- If outside Australia, sick employees should follow your company’s policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist them with finding an appropriate healthcare provider in that country.
Additional measures in response to currently occurring sporadic importations of COVID-19
- Employees who are well but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to their healthcare provider guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.
- If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Privacy Act.
- Employees exposed to a co-worker with confirmed COVID-19 should refer to medical guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.