Note: For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, see the Fund’s Coronavirus & COVID-19 Resources page.
The outbreak of what was first called the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, has become world news, with important developments happening on an almost daily basis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus a global health emergency, and the total number of people infected and killed by the disease continues to climb.
There’s been some confusion about the virus, due to doubts about the information coming out of China and the developing nature of the crisis. In this article, we aim to dispel misinformation and give you the key facts about the virus.
“It’s important that we share information about how to protect the health of LIUNA members and their families now, before the virus has a bigger impact in the U.S. and Canada,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Following precautions in health care environments and on other sites where workers may be at risk will not only help protect workers from the virus, but may also help contain its spread.”
What Is COVID-19?
Though it was previously referred to as the novel coronavirus (or n-CoV), the WHO is now referring to the virus at SARs-CoV-2, and the disease it causes as COVID-19. This is similar to how we refer to HIV causing AIDS. COVID-19 is a new virus that causes pneumonia-like respiratory illness and can be spread through person-to-person contact. It’s been confirmed in more than 28 countries, including the U.S., though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the immediate risk in the U.S. is low.
Symptoms are usually mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illness, similar to the common cold, and include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis are possible, but more likely to occur in people with cardiopulmonary disease and with weakened immune systems, such as infants and older adults.
The incubation period – how long it takes symptoms to appear after exposure – is between 2-14 days, and people may be contagious during this time. While we know the virus is contagious, it’s still unclear how easily it’s able to spread compared to other known viruses. Common ways the virus is spread include:
- Respiratory droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing
- Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
- Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands
COVID-19 must be diagnosed by a healthcare provider. Many major U.S. airports are screening passengers with a handheld thermometer; if you are planning on traveling, check with the airports you’ll be traveling through for information about screening protocols and procedures.
What Are the Recommended Prevention Methods?
The practices used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are the same universal precautions used for the flu and other respiratory illnesses:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you are sick, stay home.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
- Thoroughly clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you come in contact with.
How Can LIUNA Signatory Employers Help Reduce Risk for Workers?
In addition to encouraging the universal precautions above, LIUNA signatory employers should take additional steps by providing personal protective equipment (PPE) as a reasonable precaution when workers have direct contact with people suspected of having COVID-19. LIUNA members in healthcare environments are one such example. PPE may include:
- N95 respirators
- Eye protection – goggles or face shields
COVID-19 vs. the Flu
With all the attention being paid to COVID-19, members and their families shouldn’t forget about protecting against a much more common virus here in the U.S. – the flu. The CDC estimates 30 million people in the U.S. will contract the flu virus this season, leading to between 14,000 and 36,000 deaths. While the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, the risk of getting the flu is far greater in the U.S. Flu season isn’t over and there is still time to get your flu shot
Employers should also familiarize themselves with infection control measures higher up the hierarchy of controls, such as engineering and administrative controls. Examples include barriers (e.g., glass or plastic dividers) between personnel and patients suspected of having COVID-19 or limiting worker access only to those involved in the care of patients. Instituting these measures is particularly important during infectious disease outbreaks, when supplies of N95 respirators may become limited. For more information on infection control measures, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 page or its page on strategies to optimize the supply of N95 respirators.
The Fund’s Cold vs. Flu toolbox talk and Cold vs. Flu fact sheet contain additional information about common respiratory diseases and prevention methods. They can be ordered through our online Publications Catalogue. Employers can refer to this CDC interim guidance for more information on recommended strategies to educate employees and limit the spread of COVID-19.