The COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on the challenges of preventing disease spread when vaccines and medicine aren’t available. As public health officials’ calls for action include a reduction or cessation of business operations, companies are seeing sales dwindle, their employees work from home and suppliers unable to fulfill orders. For businesses that must continue to operate on their premises, as well as those that will resume onsite operations in the coming months, steps can be taken to help mitigate the impact of these challenges, including ways to help prevent the spread of the virus.
The tools available to public health officials to address the spread of disease are fairly limited when a vaccine or drugs to treat the disease do not exist, such as with the COVID-19 coronavirus. With COVID-19, treatment therapies focus on easing symptoms for patients. Though a vaccine moved into human trials in March 2020, even a fast-tracked approval of any vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to become available.1 Furthermore, even when approved, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the efficacy of any vaccine may mimic the seasonal flu vaccine, where a 40% to 60% efficacy is considered successful.2
Behaviors that may help prevent COVID-19 from spreading
Public health officials, therefore, are relying on non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) – public health measures that don’t involve medications or vaccines – to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.3
NPIs rely on government support and population compliance to be effective. Failing to close schools or allowing unfettered access to nursing facility residents, for example, may create new clusters of infections that may further infect other members of the population and increase the strain on the healthcare system’s ability to meet the surge in demand. These downstream impacts could reasonably lead to a lack of capacity and the need to ration care in the time of an unplanned outbreak. All of this can have potentially deadly results.4
The implications for businesses can be significant. From government restrictions on trade to impacts on the availability of parts, raw materials and employees, businesses must be prepared for the enactment of NPIs. Even the closing of schools could dramatically impact businesses that are unrelated to education, because parents may need to provide care and supervision for their children.
Examples of NPIs include these strategies:
- Case isolation: Designed as a containment step, symptomatic patients isolate themselves at home and limit interaction with members of their household until they meet the guidelines established by the CDC.5
- Home quarantine: Another containment step to further contain the disease, by which members of a symptomatic patient’s household quarantine themselves at home, limiting interaction with anyone outside the household and with the symptomatic patient.
- Social distancing: Designed as a mitigation step to contain community spread or person-to-person transmission of the disease, social distancing reduces interactions and close contact outside of households, to the extent possible. As of the date of this writing, the CDC recommends physically maintaining at least 6 feet (or about 2 meters) of separation between members of the general public. In the case of COVID-19, those over the age of 60 or with underlying medical conditions should be especially vigilant.6
Social distancing can take many forms, including the closure of schools, the cancellation of public events and other mandates by federal, state and local governments, i.e., public health orders, to limit the size of gatherings to only a few people. Social distancing also means eliminating visitor access to healthcare facilities to prevent the spread into or out of those facilities.
How companies can adapt to the COVID-19 challenge
Here are some suggestions for businesses as they adapt to the potential risks and challenges of COVID-19:
- Ensure that employees have the tools to work from home when their jobs can be performed remotely.
- Provide ergonomic assistance and guidance for employees who may be working on a laptop from a kitchen table, instead of their ergonomically designed office space.
- Find more tips from Zurich in the article, “Telecommuting policies face test as coronavirus risk empties offices.”
Social distancing at work when telecommuting isn’t an option:
- Revisit your facility’s workstation layout to provide as much distance between staff as possible.
- Stagger shifts, including breaks and meals, to ensure that employees are able to maintain enough distance from one another.
- Arrange food-service offerings to prevent lines and cross-contamination.
- Use disposable utensils, cups and plates temporarily.
- Convert any payment or point-of-service systems to accept wireless payment options and refuse cash payments temporarily.
- Avoid having employees use their own vehicles to make deliveries unless they are subject to a formal driver selection program with motor vehicle record checks, vehicle review process and distracted driving program.7
- Plan social distancing for deliveries with your customers to protect your drivers and their receiving staff.
Keeping lines of communication open:8
- Communicate regularly with employees about the company, steps being taken and the overall outlook. Employees may begin to feel isolated during a pandemic, so regular communication from leadership and their direct management is important.
- Encourage employees to interact using technology to work together on company business. Remind employees about access to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Social distancing in and out of the workplace may lead to household strife, increased stress and, potentially, depression. Your EAP can arrange proper resources for the employees to get help when needed.
- Provide helpful guidance when available from legitimate federal, state and local public health websites on “household tips” to follow during pandemics and nationwide emergencies.9
Taking steps to prevent the spread of disease is good citizenship, but businesses may experience disruption as a result. Companies, though, can take action to help mitigate the impact of these temporary social changes while supporting their employees and community.
Fred Myatt is Assistant Vice President - Casualty Technical Director for Zurich North America.
Alan Roberts is a Senior Health & Safety Risk Engineering Consultant for the Zurich Services Corporation at Zurich North America.
For more insights, visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Hub.