Story at a glance

  • "If we’re really going to make the changes societally and culturally to allow an epidemic like this to pass, we’re going to have to change the rules a bit,” says one expert.
  • A major employer in Virginia is running a test this week to prepare for the possibility of having its employees work from home due to coronavirus.
  • Several Seattle-area employers are encouraging staff to work from home in response to the local outbreak.

Chevy Newell of Richmond, Va., works at home for Progressive Insurance. With worries about catching COVID-19 in the workplace, many people nationwide wish they had that option.

“Thankfully, since I already work from home, my company is already set up and connected in a way that we have access to our work systems and are already used to communicating through a significant work-from-home network,” says Newell. “Some of our in-office employees can choose to work from home. I would not be opposed to working in an open space environment or afraid (of the coronavirus), but I would be more careful and observant,” adds Newell.

With slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus seen as a priority, Dr. Danny Avula, the director of the Richmond and Henrico health departments, says, “I think it raises the real consideration that employers need to start planning for, which is what policy environment do we create to allow more people to work from home? If we’re really going to make the changes societally and culturally to allow an epidemic like this to pass, we’re going to have to change the rules a bit. As we prepare guidance for employers, we’re asking them to look at their continuity of operations plans; we’re asking them to allow more people to work from home, to actually require people who are symptomatic to not come into work, and so, to some degree, those things will be effective in limiting the transmission of disease." 

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 Avula calls that "a pretty big cultural shift.” He says, “If you just have a mild cold, which most of those people who get this virus will, that isn’t always a trigger for you to stay home from work, and so, there will have to be cultural adaptations that we make if we're going to be successful in keeping this at bay."

In response to the coronavirus, Genworth, an insurance company based in Virginia, conducted a mandatory work-from-home exercise for all its employees nationwide this Thursday and Friday, according to Julie Westermann, public relations manager.  The purpose, according to Westermann, "is to test our ability to maintain operations should public health officials ask businesses in the communities in which we operate to close for an extended period of time. In determining our level of response to any health threat, we take our lead from public health officials and state and local governments and refine our protocols, as needed, to protect our employees and the communities we work in while continuing to serve our policyholders."

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Susan Spencer works at Genworth's Richmond, Va., office and says she "appreciates the company being proactive."

Genworth's preparedness exercise comes as precautions are taken nationwide with growing concerns about the novel coronavirus. 

In the Seattle area, where there have been reported cases of the coronavirus, companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon are urging employees to work from home to protect the health and safety of staff.

The situation is constantly evolving, says Avula. "There's still a lot we don't know about this virus. We're still in discovery mode."

"We really need to be dealing with the very real possibility that we have people in our community right now who may have COVID-19, " says Avula. "We have not built up the large-scale testing capacity. We're not testing for surveillance right now; we're really only testing people who meet some very narrow criteria."


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Published on Mar 06, 2020