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‘Prepare, don’t scare’: NSC hosts webinar with CDC expert on coronavirus and the workforce

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Itasca, IL — Employers preparing to protect their workers and communities from the spread of COVID-19 – now considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization – should “prepare, don’t scare,” them, an expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying.

Ian Williams, deputy incident manager for CDC’s coronavirus response team, was the featured speaker on a March 10 webinar coordinated by the National Safety Council, titled, A COVID-19 Update from CDC and NSC – What Employers Need to Know.

The next day, WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, reporting that the number of cases worldwide had surpassed 118,000 and the death toll had reached nearly 4,300. The disease is reportedly linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China, according to CDC. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. In the United States, 938 people in 38 states and the District of Columbia had been diagnosed with the illness and 29 had died as of March 11, the agency states.

“It’s fair to say as the trajectory of this outbreak continues, many people in the United States at some point – either this year or next year – will be exposed to the virus,” Williams said. “It’s a good chance that many will actually become sick. This is to prepare folks, not scare folks.”

Based on WHO reports from China, Williams said the coronavirus has proven highly contagious. However, 80% of the cases in the country involved mild illness from which infected patients recovered.

Data from WHO shows that adults 60 and older are at increased risk of illness and death from the coronavirus. The risk rises with age, and is especially acute for people older than 80 and adults with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease.

CDC has numerous resources for employers on its COVID-19 website, from interim guidance for businesses and employers to cleaning and disinfecting strategies to resources for large gatherings.

During preparation efforts, Williams said employers should contact local and state health departments to work together on mitigating the effects of the illness in their community. These health departments, he added, will be integral in identifying people who are infected, along with others who have come in contact with them.

A limit on domestic travel from the federal government would be “very unusual,” Williams said. In lieu of any restrictions or bans, employers should consider the coronavirus threat level at a traveling employee’s destination. For example, Washington state – particularly the Seattle area – has experienced a high number of COVID-19 cases, as well as related deaths.

As for the duration of the spread nationwide, “nobody knows for sure,” Williams said, who noted that some experts said it could extend through the fall and perhaps into next year. Williams added that most workers do not need to wear masks to protect themselves.

“CDC is not recommending that the general public go out and buy masks,” he said. “We need the supply of protective masks for our health care workers and the folks who are the most vulnerable.”

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