Prudent business practices in the face of a potential pandemic

This is what we know so far about the coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan city in China’s Hubei province late last year and what the implications are for businesses in B.C.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first alerted to several cases of a novel viral infection in Wuhan city on December 31.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the more serious Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). They are zoonotic – meaning that they are transmitted from animals to people. The origins of the current virus are thought to be linked to Wuhan’s South China Seafood City and South China Seafood Wholesale Market.

It is spreading quickly, but it could be worse. The virus is passed between humans, and it is unclear whether it is infectious prior to the onset of symptoms. Researchers have estimated the basic reproduction number to be in the range of three to five, which means that if left unchecked one infection will result in three to five new infections.

By way of comparison, the basic reproduction number of measles is 12 to 18, smallpox is five to seven and SARS was two to five.

As a reminder, the SARS outbreak in 2003 killed 44 Canadians.

In terms of raw numbers, the spread of the current Wuhan coronavirus has been staggering.

On January 20, the WHO reported 282 confirmed cases, only three of which were outside of China. As of January 29, the WHO reported 6,065 cases globally, 132 deaths and 68 confirmed cases outside of China in 15 different countries.

At press time, Canada had three confirmed cases.

Both Health Canada and the BC Centre for Disease Control have stated that the risk for British Columbians of contracting the Wuhan coronavirus is low.

Symptoms are similar to those of many other respiratory illnesses. They include fever, dry cough, sore throat and headache. Only a few cases experience more severe symptoms such as shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. The disease is fatal in approximately 2% of reported cases. It is likely that the mortality rate is significantly lower as many patients experiencing mild symptoms are not diagnosed with the disease.

Confirmation of having the Wuhan coronavirus is achieved only through blood analysis.

There are several implications for employers, some obvious and others a bit more nuanced.

Canadian authorities have stated that even with an outbreak in Canada there will not be mass quarantines. China, on the other hand, has shut down transportation to at least 13 cities, home to 36 million people.

So your people will be coming to work. How can you ensure a safe workplace for your employees?

We recommend:

•avoiding business travel to Hubei province in particular and China in general until further notice; and

•informing employees of travel advisories so they can avoid travelling to problem areas for non-work-related reasons.

If an employee has recently been to an area in which the Wuhan coronavirus is present and exhibits typical symptoms, send the employee home and encourage him or her to notify the provincial health authorities so that proper care for the employee can be arranged.

We recommend not permitting the employee to be on the employer’s premises until he or she has medical documentation confirming that there is no infection.

If it is known that an employee has been in physical contact with another person who has been diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus, direct the employee not to return to the workplace until the employee presents medical confirmation that he or she is not infected.

Ensure that the employee sent home has access to sick-leave benefits and is permitted access to vacation pay and employment insurance sick pay or, in the final alternative, is given authorized leaves of absence without pay during any period of quarantine.

The employer may also consider allowing employees subject to a quarantine to telecommute.

It is conceivable that an employee may exercise the statutory right to refuse business-related travel to China or any area where there are reported cases of the Wuhan coronavirus. It is also possible that an employee may exercise this right to avoid working with a person who he or she believes has been exposed to the virus. Each case must be assessed on its set of facts.

During the 2003 SARS epidemic, some members of B.C.’s Asian community were singled out as being responsible for the spread of the virus because some people thought it was an Asian disease. Employers must be mindful of their obligation to ensure a respectful workplace free from discrimination. To the extent there are any concerns expressed in this manner, investigate and take any appropriate remedial steps as required.

The concern about the Wuhan coronavirus is real, but we must be careful at this stage not to overstate the present dangers in our community. At present, the risk of infection in British Columbia and Canada generally is low. It is a situation we will need to monitor and be vigilant with when we encounter a friend or co-worker who has been exposed to the virus. At the end of the day, apply your common sense and use prudent judgment to ensure a respectful and safe work environment. •

Gregory J. Heywood is a founding partner at Roper Greyell, where he provides strategic and practical advice to employers on labour and employment issues in the workplace.