There’s been a lot of confusion since the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) emerged a month ago in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. This week, several companies stopped or curtailed travel to China, including Facebook, HSBC and LG, according to published reports. Many travel managers are looking for information to make sound decisions and help travelers. Kevin Coffey, senior consultant at GoldSpring Consulting, offers insights and advice.

The coronavirus family is a large group of viruses that typically affect the respiratory tract. Coronaviruses can lead to illnesses like the common cold, pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The deadly coronavirus 2019-nCoV has spread to 12 countries, with the vast majority of cases reported in mainland China.

Like the flu, the coronavirus can spread from person to person. It is transmitted through coughing, sneezing or touching an infected person. Getting too close to someone who may already have the virus would be risky. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  there are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses but most infected people recover on their own.

Due to the outbreak of the virus, the U.S. State Department issued its highest travel advisory (Level 4) for the Hubei province. Level 4 advisories urge U.S. citizens not to travel to the impacted area. CDC issued a Warning Level 3 (Red) alert recommending against “all non-essential travel to this destination. The outbreak is of high risk to travelers and no precautions are available to protect against the identified increased risk.”

Kevin Coffey, senior consultant at GoldSpring Consulting

In the United States, CDC personnel are screening air passengers arriving at international gateways in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York (JFK) and San Francisco. Those airports receive most of the incoming travelers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan. Screenings include health questionnaires and checks for fever and other symptoms.

Some second- and third-tier airlines are reducing or stopping service into China. There is some concern that mainline carriers may follow suit, which would limit a company’s ability to evacuate expatriate employees and their families.

Global companies are activating crisis management teams, pandemic task forces or similar internal groups in response to the coronavirus. Task forces are determining how to manage travel restrictions and discussing alternate ways to continue doing business in China.

Some organizations are restricting travel to and from China. Others are asking travelers to reconsider travel, depending on where they are flying within China and whether the trip is business-critical.  Many have banned all travel to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, some organizations in Asia are screening staff and visitors via temperature checks. Many around the world are asking questions about sourcing temperature checking devices for locations in Asia and select offices in other locations. 

What Can Travel Managers Do?

• Reach out to all travelers with trips scheduled to China to confirm they have cancelled their plans or followed the organization’s policies related to this issue. Many organizations are rerouting approvals for China travel to incident teams, global security and company executives.

• Advise travelers to consult with their personal healthcare providers before and after travel.

• Advise travelers returning from China to work remotely for at least 14 days prior to returning to the office.

To prepare for an ongoing response and potentially broader impact consider the following: 

• Set up an incident support team to deal specifically with this and similar events. Team members may include travel managers, expatriate coordinators and personnel from corporate security, human resources, employee communications, risk, safety and medical.

• For larger companies, set up medical teams to monitor the issue and reach out to travelers in China and those returning home.

• Prepare for requests from expatriate employees to leave China.

Advice for Travelers

Because the viruses are spread through airborne droplets (sneezing and coughing), avoid close contact with people who are sick — particularly those who display symptoms similar to those of pneumonia or the common cold, such as coughing or runny noses.

Because the viruses also spread through touching an infected surface, frequent hand washing is an effective way to reduce the potential for infection. Use of a good alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a good substitute when necessary.

On airplanes, travelers should take additional measures to minimize exposure to germs and infection, especially if they suffer from a weak immune system or are particularly vulnerable to illnesses. Consider using disinfecting wipes to help kill germs, paying special attention to seat tray tables (top and bottom), which usually top the list for most bacteria per square inch on an airplane; armrests; TV screen and/or remote; seat buckle; seat storage compartment; and flight attendant call buttons.

The coronavirus situation is still evolving, so staying up to date and communicating with travelers regularly will help all parties. Travel managers can work through any of the communication and change management channels and processes already in place.

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