UPDATE: Preparing for Potential Operational Impacts of COVID-19

Coronavirus, now officially referred to as COVID-19, continues to spread, causing global impacts, including numerous travel bans, reduced air travel, and selloffs in financial markets. Cases are now confirmed in 49 nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level.

2019 Novel Coronavirus

Recommended Preparedness Measures

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that U.S. businesses, schools and municipalities should prepare to implement social distancing measures designed to limit the spread of the disease. Social distancing measures include:

  • Dividing schools into smaller groups of students or temporarily closing schools
  • Canceling in-person meetings and conferences
  • Making arrangements for employees to work from home

Businesses and organizations should consider forming management committees to examine sick leave and other human resources policies to determine whether modifications are warranted due to the COVID-19 threat.

Businesses should prepare for possible increased absenteeism. Now is the time to establish policies regarding absenteeism due to travel restrictions, sick employees, and employees who are fearful of commuting to work. Determine thresholds that would trigger the need for temporary closures or other modifications to operations. 

Businesses should also consider potential problems associated with “presenteeism.” Employers should educate employees on COVID-19 symptoms and on how to increase their chances of avoiding infection. Employees should be instructed to stay home from work if they are experiencing symptoms or if they have traveled to a region with a COVID-19 outbreak or otherwise been exposed to an infected person or environment.

For businesses that can have people work remotely, consider conducting a test where all employees work from home on a designated day to test capabilities and capacities:

  • Do employees have the necessary equipment and internet connectivity?
  • Does call forwarding and message retrieval work as needed?
  • Can the network handle the necessary volume for VPN access?

Businesses should consider halting non-essential business travel and should ask employees to report personal travel to affected areas prior to returning to work.

There is no silver bullet for avoiding infection. The best practices are the same as for other communicable respiratory diseases:

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Cover mouths when coughing
  • Stay home and away from others when sick
  • Increase sanitation in public places, including frequent cleaning of surfaces that are commonly touched by visitors


The CDC this week issued seemingly contradictory statements about the likelihood of COVID-19 infection spreading widely in the U.S. On Tuesday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC issued a warning that COVID-19 infection in the U.S. will almost certainly spread, saying “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” She went on to say, “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.” She continued, “The disruption of daily life might be severe. We want to make sure the American public is prepared.” On Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said, “I think what Dr. Messonnier was trying to say — I think it maybe could have been done much more articulately from what the American public heard — was she was trying to say it’s also a good time for us to prepare if we have to go to more mitigation.” He continued, “We’re still committed to get aggressive containment, and I want the American public to know at this point that the risk is low.” Director Redfield’s statements support President Trump’s view that the risk is low. There is likely a reluctance at various levels of government to enact stringent disease containment measures that could further depress commerce and financial markets. Whether or not Dr. Messonnier’s statements about widespread COVID-19 infection prove correct, it is prudent for businesses, organizations, schools, and families to prepare now for potential disruptions.

The good news is that approximately 81% of cases are categorized as mild, with symptoms similar to the common cold. Another 14% of cases are categorized as severe and 5% are critical. According to a study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the mortality rate is listed as 2.3% but there are important nuances. There have been no fatalities among patients with mild or severe cases. 49% of critical cases were fatal. In addition, the mortality rate increases with the age of the patient and for those with underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory ailments. The vast majority of fatalities have occurred in China where limited healthcare availability in the most severely affected region and a high percentage of cigarette smokers could have skewed the statistics. The mortality rate is likely to be lower in the U.S., even if the disease spreads widely.

Additional good news is that the rate of infection in China has decreased. The number of new confirmed cases, which had been more than 2,000 per day, have dropped to approximately 500 per day. This indicates that containment measures such as social distancing are effective in limiting the spread of the disease.

One downside to the mild nature of most COVID-19 cases is that people with undiagnosed cases may not know they have anything more than a common cold and will continue to travel and visit public places, further spreading the disease. Screening measures such as body temperature checks for entry to public places, air travel, or mass transit are unlikely to be successful since there are asymptomatic infected people and because the incubation period ranges up to 14 days.

The 1918 Spanish flu killed approximately 675,000 people in the U.S. During this pandemic, some cities were quick to enact strict social distancing measures, but others allowed public gatherings for weeks after the initial cases appeared. A study found that, “early implementation of certain interventions, including closure of schools, churches, and theaters, was associated with lower peak death rates.” The takeaway is that some short-term pain could help avoid more damaging, long-term impacts.

Need help evaluating your organization's readiness or implementing these recommendations? T&M's experts advise and train on preparedness in the workplace. If your organization needs assistance, our team is at the ready.

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