What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

CDC issues guidance for U.S. workers.

By Alexandra Walsh

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized in mid-March that the novel, or new, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) poses a potentially serious public health threat, although the risk to individuals is dependent on exposure.

At press time, the community spread of COVID-19 in the United States was present along with the beginning of regional clusters. Concurrently, the CDC issued interim guidance for businesses and employers, emphasizing that sick workers stay home.

What Is a Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses in general are a family of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in people. Coronaviruses circulate among animals such as camels, cattle, cats, and bats.

How Is It Different?

Just like there are different types of related viruses that cause smallpox or chickenpox, different coronaviruses cause different diseases in people. In fact, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is just one of seven types of known human coronaviruses.

Like the earlier MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus, COVID-19 likely evolved from a virus previously found in animals. The remaining known coronaviruses cause a significant percentage of colds in adults and children, and these are not a serious threat for otherwise healthy adults.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Patients who have been confirmed as having a COVID-19 coronavirus infection have reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

What If Someone Has Been Exposed or Infected?

People need to alert their healthcare provider immediately if they think they may be infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, or if they think they may have been exposed to someone with the virus who has signs or symptoms of infection.

If you are experiencing symptoms, you should especially tell your healthcare provider about any recent travel to areas where the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is spreading.

If you believe you have been exposed on the job, alert your supervisor or a health clinic immediately.

How Is the COVID-19 Coronavirus Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider can determine if your signs and symptoms are explained by other causes, or if there is reason to suspect you may have contracted the new coronavirus. If laboratory testing is appropriate, your healthcare provider will work with health officials in your state, who in turn will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect and test any clinical specimens for diagnosis.

The CDC’s Information for Laboratories webpage provides detailed information and interim guidelines for collecting, handling, and testing clinical specimens from patients under investigation and also provides laboratory biosafety guidelines for handling and processing specimens associated with COVID-19 infection.

How Does the COVID-19 Coronavirus Spread?

The ongoing outbreak likely resulted originally from people who were exposed to infected animals. But like other coronaviruses, COVID-19 can spread between people. Infected people can spread the COVID-19 coronavirus through their respiratory secretions, especially when they cough or sneeze.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 spreads from person to person, most likely in a close proximity of about 6 feet. Person-to-person spreading is thought to occur mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes—the same way influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.

These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It is currently unclear if a person can get the COVID-19 coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or their eyes.

Given what has occurred previously with respiratory diseases such as MERS and SARS that are caused by other coronaviruses, it is likely that some spreading  of COVID-19 person to person will continue to occur.

The National Safety Council is closely following data about coronavirus. The NSC says all employers can take important measures to keep workers healthy. However, those in the healthcare sector with employees who travel internationally and those in the international travel industry are at particular risk of contracting the virus.

Prevention and Treatment

There is no current vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Employers should stay up to date about the coronavirus and check that their employees are not traveling to areas of high exposure and are using recommended disinfectant practices.

The NSC echoes the following recommendations from OSHA and the CDC on preventing possible transmission of the coronavirus:

  • Practice proper infection control and sterilization measures.
  • Frequently wash the hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching the eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with those who are sick.
  • Stay home when sick and see a doctor immediately to be evaluated for the coronavirus.
  • If a worker becomes infected, insist that they fully recover before returning to work.
  • Employees who have traveled with heightened levels of exposure should inform their employers immediately.
  • Avoid sending staff on business trips to China, where the virus originated and has not yet been detained, or Iran, United Kingdom, and most European countries.

Training in how to prevent illness in the workplace is imperative for all employees, and employers should see to it their workplaces are offering appropriate training.

Symptoms and Complications

Reported cases of the coronavirus have varied symptoms, with some infected individuals presenting little to no symptoms. Symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

The CDC believes the incubation period of the virus could be anywhere from two days to as much as 14 days after exposure. This is based on what has been previously seen with the MERS virus.

Remember to educate your workers on the signs and symptoms of the coronavirus; provide hand sanitizers and easy access to hand-washing areas; minimize unnecessary meetings and visitors; identify people who may have traveled to China and countries affected by the coronavirus and implement travel guidelines; and allow sick employees to work from home or take leave.

Additional Resources

The latest situation summary updates are available on CDC’s webpage “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Employers can also refer to OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic” which provides helpful tips on monitoring public health crises in general.

OSHA also has resources directly related to the coronavirus.

Quick Facts
  • Existing OSHA standards apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus, COVID-19.
  • Signs and symptoms of infection with COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
  • Some people who get the COVID-19 virus may experience only mild illness, but the virus can also cause pneumonia which may be severe.
  • CDC believes at this time that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • It is likely some person-to-person spread of the virus will continue to occur.
  • CDC issued a warning notice to avoid all non-essential travel to China, Iran, United Kingdom, and most European countries.
  • CDC and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have implemented enhanced health screenings to detect travelers with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing when entering the United States.

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.