Employers with employees traveling to and from China may want to take note of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) announcement on January 21, 2020, that the United States had confirmed its first case of a new strain of the coronavirus that appeared in Wuhan, China, last month. The virus has already sickened hundreds of people and is reported to have killed nine, according to Chinese authorities.
The U.S. patient is a male residing near Seattle, in Snohomish County, Washington, who recently returned from a trip to Wuhan.
The CDC is currently screening passengers arriving from Wuhan to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport. It will start screening passengers flying directly from Wuhan to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The CDC also issued an advisory as “Alert-Level 2,” which advises travelers to “practice enhanced precautions.”
According to the CDC, human coronaviruses commonly cause mild to moderate illness in people. Two of the newer coronaviruses, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, have been known to cause severe illness. The CDC is currently monitoring the 2019-nCoV (the newly discovered virus originating in Wuhan) and is providing updates and guidance to state and local health departments and healthcare providers. One of the reasons for concern is that Chinese health officials have said the virus can spread by human-to-human contact. Nevertheless, at this stage, the CDC’s risk assessment states that “the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.”
Information is rapidly evolving. Cases have also been reported in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, as well as in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea. However, only one case has been reported in the United States as of this writing, which was related to travel to China.
Prudent employers may want to monitor the CDC as its investigation and assessment progresses. While there is likely a low risk to U.S. workers, employers may want to consider educating employees traveling to China and other impacted regions as to the symptoms of the virus and be prepared to discuss any need for accommodation, such as excepting employees with pertinent health conditions or vulnerability from travel to affected areas upon request.
The CDC advises people who believe they may have been exposed to or infected with the virus to contact health authorities and seek immediate medical care. Employers may also wish to direct employees with questions or concerns to the CDC website for the latest information.