Since the new coronavirus began it’s spread from Wuhan, China, to other countries public health officials have struggled to keep up with the potential threat that it poses to millions of people around the world. The first case in the US was reported this week.
This virus, called the “novel coronavirus,” or COVID-19, is a tough opponent. Every day, the number of people infected by it increases, along with the death toll (estimated at more than 2,500 at February 24, 2020).
For updates on COVID-19, check the CDC site.
What does this mean for you, your family and your colleagues? And are you aware of everything you know to stay safe from this and other life-threatening viruses?
How could a new virus such as this spread so fast?
COVID-19 isn’t entirely new. It is the most recent member of a family of viruses called human coronaviruses discovered in the 1960s. Seven versions can infect humans. Four can cause common colds.
Coronaviruses usually infect animals. However, the viruses’ genetic material can evolve, and infect humans and then spread among the populations. You may recall in 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was caused by a coronavirus jumped from animals to humans. With SARS and COVID-19, this happened in one of China’s live-animal markets. SARS spread outside of China via infected air travelers. The SARS virus eventually infected about 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 who succumbed to pneumonia (mostly in mainland China). Largely because of effective public health measures, only eight people in the USA tested positive for a SARS infection.
How contagious is COVID-19?
This is uncertain at this time. In China, health authorities know that it can spread from person to person. A novel virus can be more hazardous than one that has been around for a while, as humans have not developed immunity,. Newborns and infants could be at high risk for serious infections from COVID-19 because mothers (who are not immune) can’t pass on antibodies after birth.
Making an assumption that COVID-19 is found to be similar to SARS it may require “close contact” to spread. Examples of this include kissing or hugging…sharing eating utensils or drinking vessels…direct touch…and speaking within three feet (you can breathe in droplets that a sick person coughs or sneezes or simply exhales near you).
Touching an infected surface may also transmit Coronaviruses. If an infected person sneezes or coughs into his/her hand and then touches an elevator button or doorknob and another person touches that area and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes, they can become infected. The SARS and MERS coronaviruses, which may be similar to COVID-19, were found to persist on surfaces, such as metal, glass or plastic, for up to nine days.
Is COVID-19 worse than the flu?
Similar to the flu, it causes coughing, fever, fatigue and, possibly, diarrhea. In China, most people experienced a mild infection from COVID-19 and recovered at home with standard self-care, such as over-the-counter medication, fluids and rest.
But some people get much sicker and can die (reportedly, COVID-19 may be up to 20 times more lethal than the flu). When the illness progresses, it does so relatively quickly, leading to pneumonia. Patients who have pneumonia-like symptoms should immediately seek medical assistance so their condition does not become terminal. In general, people who are very old or very young or who have compromised immune systems typically are at higher risk from infectious diseases.
What’s the best way to avoid the new coronavirus?
There is no vaccine, so proper personal hygiene including hand-washing is crucial. This advice is so simple that some people tend to ignore it. But washing your hands with water and plain soap (not antibacterial soap—it may contribute to antibiotic resistance) is fundamental.
If you can’t wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Most people use too little hand sanitizer, so be sure to use a large enough quantity to cover all surfaces—palms, backs of hands, fingers and in between fingers. Then, do not wipe it off…let it air dry.
Another option is to wear a mask. This is most effective when the sick person dons the mask, but that’s not always possible. A caretaker should wear gloves and a surgical mask when tending to someone with an infectious disease. You can buy surgical-style masks at your local pharmacy. To receive the most protection from this type of mask, be sure that your mouth, nose and chin are covered, and mold the metallic strip to your nose. Change the mask each day, and wash your hands after disposing of it.
When using public transportation, where there is a risk that infected people may be present, wearing a mask may make sense. At least carry one when flying in case you are seated next to someone who appears sick. Wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose or mouth, and carry hand sanitizer for when soap and water are not available. If you know someone who has been to an affected area, be cautious about contact with him until you can be confident that he is disease-free and past the presumptive incubation period.
Finally, encouraging employees to operate as telecommuters and holding meeting on-line as opposed to face to face, may minimize the possibility of direct contact infection.
We developed an informational email for our own staff. A copy is here.
Liability policies may respond to an outbreak of coronavirus.
While traditional property-casualty insurance policies have limited coverage for outbreaks and epidemics like the COVID-19, firms need to review their policies and be aware of any potential coverage.
Beyond workers compensation, property and business interruption, other coverages such as professional liability and pollution liability policies might respond to infectious diseases in specific circumstances. If your firm does not enforce specific corporate and human resource policies during an outbreak there may be grounds to claims of discrimination against protected classes. Employment practices liability policies could respond in those cases.
Directors’ and Officers’ liability policies could also cover litigation by employees and stakeholders alleging, for example, a lack of preparedness for the potential effect on corporate operations and earnings. This type of event-driven litigation is a hot topic in the Directors’ and Officers’ liability world. While D&O policies typically include limitations on coverage for illnesses and for bodily injury, these limitations may be broadly worded, so policyholders should review their policies.
Depending on the severity of the disease, firms might also incur cleanup or waste removal costs and might be forced by government authorities to temporarily close. Pollution legal liability policies or a pollution liability section of a Business Owners’ Policy can respond depending on policy wording and the facts of a claim.
General liability policies could also cover illness involving customers and other third parties but are not likely to cover claims based on fear of exposure without actual symptoms.
In regard to property policies if the virus is present on a policyholder’s premises, there could be coverage for decontamination costs, cleanup and interruption by a communicable disease. However, standard property policies require physical damage for coverage to be triggered and typically contain contamination exclusions.
While in the past infectious diseases have been a prominent concern for businesses and risk professionals, that attention and concern has been relatively short lived. However, these outbreaks are becoming more common and will continue to occur as other dynamics like climate change, population growth and global trade exacerbate infectious disease risk.
Jorgensen & Company are not attorneys and do not offer any form of legal advice. Consult with appropriately qualified local counsel for more assistance. Rickard Jorgensen is President and Chief Underwriting Officer for the CPAGold™ program and may be contacted at (201) 345 2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.