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Employers, Schools Adjust and Prepare as COVID-19 Spreads

Many companies and schools are encouraging their staff and students to stay at home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for those that don’t, precautions and preventive measures have increased.

(TNS) — Like most who work in corporate America, Pat Canada of Oklahoma City received an email from his company about precautions to avoid contracting the coronavirus — from regular and vigorous hand washing to staying home if you’re sick to avoiding nonessential travel.

But Canada’s job hinges on travel. As district manager for Eagle, ID-based PetIQ, he flies frequently to open vet clinics in superstores nationwide, including Walmart, Pet Supplies Plus and Meijer stores.

Canada just returned from Seattle on Sunday, leaves Thursday for New York and begins an eight-night trip to Sacramento on Tuesday. His trips are booked 14 days in advance, and his company has yet to cancel all travel.

Canada said he’s growing more anxious about the coronavirus.

Though he doesn’t wear a protective face mask, he’s seen plenty of them in airports, “especially on the coasts where international flights are coming in.” Airlines are providing hand sanitizers on counters and people are using them, he said.

Meanwhile, employers who work in cubicles in open office spaces especially are concerned about the outbreak, according to a national survey released Monday by the San Francisco-based tech PR firm Bospar.

Of 1,014 U.S. adults polled between Feb. 29 and March 1, 55.3% are afraid of coming down with COVID-19, more commonly called coronavirus, and 35.9% feel companies should immediately make employees work from home to avoid its spread.

“Open office spaces are among the worst for COVID-19, particularly if they are sealed office spaces without open ventilation and the air is just recirculated within the building," said E Hanh Le, M.D., senior director of medical affairs at Healthline. "That’s because, like with other communicable airborne illnesses, COVID-19 is spread from coughing, sneezing or talking as the virus travels through respiratory drops.

“Current data suggests that the virus may also survive on surfaces for several hours, if not days, but we do not know that definitively yet,” Le said. “To reduce the risk of spreading infection, concerned companies should enforce work from home policies to keep contagion down.”

Oklahoma Employers Respond

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Spanish Cove Retirement Village assisted living facility in Yukon, Bethany Public Schools are just some of the many employers bracing for the potential spread of the virus to the state.

OMRF, which employs people from more than 30 countries and whose scientists presented in 17 countries last year, hasn't banned travel abroad but is encouraging staff to postpone trips, said Adam Cohen, senior vice president and general counsel.

“We currently have several postdoctoral fellows from China who were scheduled to begin work here this spring,” Cohen said. “But the U.S. Embassy in China is now closed, so their visa interviews have been postponed. Their flights out of China have been canceled, so we have no idea when we can expect them.”

In addition, OMRF contracted with the European Molecular Biology Organization six months ago to send a team of scientists to lead a weeklong training session at the end of March, but — because Germany has more than 100 reported cases of coronavirus — canceled that session this week.

OMRF’s Technology Ventures team moved a meeting last week with executives from South Korea from OMRF to an off-site hotel, due to the cluster of coronavirus cases in South Korea.

Across town, Don Blose, CEO of Spanish Cove Village in Yukon, said his senior living community is discussing response scenarios if a resident or staff member contracts the disease.

“We plan to follow standard infectious disease protocol and additional guidance prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Health Department,” said Blose, who served as a former state director for infectious disease. “We are already taking precautions to limit resident exposure to those who have traveled abroad.

“Our primary strategy will be to minimize the spread of the disease through isolation and quarantine,” Blose said. “Should it become endemic in our area, we foresee suspending group activities, delivering meals to our residents, limiting and screening visitors, and requiring staff who are infected or have infected family members not to report to work.”

Bethany Public Schools is using a daily cleaning solution known to kill a broad range of microorganisms, Superintendent Drew Eichelberger said.

“We are working on a letter to send out to parents, giving them basic information and state and federal websites to get additional information,” he said. “And a parent of one of our students who is a doctor has offered to meet with us about recommendations going forward.”

Concerned Parents

Meanwhile, Oklahoma parents whose children are living and working overseas, or bound for study abroad, also are concerned about coronavirus.

John Gallegos, a supervisor with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, worries about his daughter who resides on a U.S. Air Force base south of Seoul, South Korea, where her husband is based and she works as a substitute teacher. There, everyone is wearing masks in public and schoolchildren are studying online from home.

Claudia Holdridge-Bartlett of Sapulpa said her daughter Sarah, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, received an email Wednesday saying her study abroad trip, which was scheduled to commence in May, may be canceled because Italy, where there are many reported cases, is among the four countries she was scheduled to visit. Bartlett said OSU is working with the travel company, and she’s not sure whether her family will lose money because of the outbreak.

Oklahoma Christian University also canceled a scheduled student trip to Italy, marketing specialist Sarah Horton said. Other international and study abroad programs, including students currently studying in Vienna, Austria, haven‘t been impacted, she said, noting there is no financial impact to students or the university and “We are very closely, of course, watching as the pandemic continues to develop.”

Employer Obligations

Federal law requires employers to provide a safe workplace, said Phoebe Mitchell, an Oklahoma City associate of Phillips Murrah law firm, who recently wrote a column on the topic with a Dallas colleague.

Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers must furnish "employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to … employees." Activities such as nonessential business travel to China or other areas affected by the virus could violate the clause, Mitchell said.

Employers should consider preventive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, such as providing hand sanitizers to employees and encouraging sick employees to stay home, she said. When an employer suspects that an employee has been exposed to coronavirus, either by traveling to an affected area or through contact with an affected person, the employer should require the employee, including those under required or self-quarantine, to work from home, where possible, during the 14-day incubation period.

For employees who can’t work remotely, employers should allow the employee to take leave consistent with the employer's normal leave of absence policies, including permitting employees to use any available paid leave, Mitchell said.

Impacted employees may be eligible for job-protected unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Employees who test positive for coronavirus most likely meet the FMLA's definition of "serious health condition," so they’re entitled to FMLA leave, she said. These employees also may meet the definition of a "qualified individual with a disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring employers to engage in the interactive process to determine if leave or another reasonable accommodation is required.

As far as potentially affected workers who don’t show symptoms, they may be able to take FMLA if they’re under continuing treatment for a serious health condition and meet the various requirements, Mitchell said.

Coronavirus At A Glance

Worldwide, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases recently surpassed 94,000, resulting in nearly 3,200 deaths. Although some 95% of the cases are located in China, 138 have been confirmed in the U.S. There are no vaccines or specific antiviral medicines to treat the virus, which can cause respiratory issues, ranging from cold-like symptoms to breathing difficulties to hospitalization and death, particularly for the elderly and those with preexisting medical problems. The period of time between catching the virus and showing symptoms of the disease can be one to 14 days. The virus strain causing the global outbreak, COVID-19, initially was diagnosed in December in Wuhan, China.

©2020 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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