As every national news program has announced, the Ebola virus has been diagnosed in a North Texas patient. This is the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States. According to reports, the Liberian national traveled from Liberia through Brussels, Washington D.C., to Dallas, Texas where he was eventually diagnosed with the virus. Given that the virus has now crossed the Atlantic to the United States, here are a few things employers should know.
What is Ebola and how is it transmitted?
Ebola, a/k/a hemorrhagic fever, is a deadly virus with no known vaccine (although several experimental treatments are being tested). The virus has a high fatality rate between 59 and 90 percent. Symptoms include the sudden onset of fever greater than or equal to 101.5°F, malaise, headache, diarrhea, weakness and vomiting. Symptoms tend appear between two days and three weeks after exposure. Patients are not contagious if they do not have symptoms. Ebola is not transmitted through the air or through casual contact. It is transmitted through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids.
What should employers do?
First, don’t panic. The epidemic is primarily limited to West Africa. Given that there has only been one case of the virus diagnosed in Texas and that instance was an imported infection, there does not appear to be an immediate need for employers to take any action other than to monitor current events and be advised if there is a spread or increase in the number of known U.S. cases.
If, however, your employees work in certain industries such as healthcare, laboratory workers handling human specimens or international airports or airline operations, there is a greater risk of exposure to early onset Ebola virus than for members of the general population. Healthcare and laboratory workers should strictly follow their hospital’s infection control protocols when handling human bodily fluids.
Similarly, the CDC has issued guidance on steps air carriers can take to protect their work forces.
Second, if the virus spreads in the United States, employers in non-high risk operations should consider making plans for continuing operations in the event of a mass outbreak. These can include:
- Identifying key, critical business functions.
- Creating clear succession plans for key personnel.
- Training of employees in Ebola signs, symptoms and avoidance.
The Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce has information on how employers can make plans for Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity here.
Third, if employees begin to become apprehensive about the potential for a U.S. outbreak, employers can provide training in Ebola prevention and awareness. The CDC offers some suggestions on how to avoid contracting Ebola. (here). Educating employees and offering them steps to take to prevent infection may relieve some of their apprehension.
Finally, if a Texas employer believes that it has knowledge of a potential case of Ebola, it should report that belief to the Centers for Disease Control and Texas Department of Health and Human Services.
The CDC has a site in its Workplace Safety and Health page on Ebola and employers should bookmark this page for reference in the event a spread of the disease occurs. A link to the page is here.
The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Health and Safety Department also has on-line resources and education about protecting employees from Ebola here.
While it currently appears that most U.S. employers and their workforces have little to fear from the Ebola virus, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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