At this time, all but one state (West Virginia) has reported cases of coronavirus, more accurately known as “corona virus disease 2019,” or COVID-19. Areas with dense populations are particularly susceptible to an outbreak due to the proximity of individuals to one another. Property’s with emergency response plans should follow those plans if they contain sections on outbreaks due to contagion. Those without an emergency plan will need to develop policies on the fly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates COVID-19’s mortality rate worldwide at 3.4%. By comparison, seasonal flu kills less than one percent of those infected. The American Medical Association estimates that each infected person will infect an additional two to three people, an exponential rate of increase. And, the disease can apparently be spread by people who are not yet exhibiting symptoms. This makes it much more difficult to contain the disease.
This crisis is presenting a unique challenge for operators of multifamily housing since such operations require constant, around the clock attention. Following are some of the steps public health officials recommended for operators of multifamily housing.
- Expect and allow for staff absences. This may occur due to illness of the staff or their family, or the need for a staff member to stay home to care for a child whose school has been closed. To prepare for this,
- Cross train employees to perform multiple job functions;
- If possible, allow for telecommuting, and flexible or staggered work hours;
- Establish protocols for staff to stay in touch with supervisors.
- Encourage sick employees to stay home. An employee with a fever should stay home until they are free of fever (100.4 degrees or greater using an oral thermometer), signs of a fever, and any other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom altering medicines such as cough suppressants.
- Do not require a doctor’s note in order for an employee to stay home or return to work since doctor’s offices are going to be overwhelmed and may not have the time to provide the notes.
- Separate sick employees. If a staff member has a cough or shortness of breath when arriving at work, or develops these symptoms while at work, they should be separated from other employees and sent home immediately.
- Generally speaking, the CDC reports that early stage COVID-19 symptoms appear to share similarities with the common cold, and range from mild to severe, including (1) fever, (2) cough, (3) shortness of breath, (4) muscular pain, and (5) tiredness.
- Communicate policies to your staff. Let them know that they should under no circumstance come to work if they show symptoms of the flu and discuss respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene at work. Additional resources are available at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html.
- Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for employees to use.
- Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 to 95% alcohol or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- If a staff member is well but has a sick family member at home, CDC guidance on conducting a risk assessment should be followed.
- If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees that they may have been exposed but maintain confidentiality as required by law.
- If you operate a federally assisted property (e.g., HUD or RD) and recertifications are required, HUD has indicated that extension requests for an active case of COVID-19 or where a resident has been advised to quarantine may be granted. Management should verify the reasons for the extension request, which may include any resident provided written information from their doctor or other health professional.
While apartment buildings are communal in nature, the characteristics of apartment buildings probably will not increase COVID-19 transmission rates. According to the CDC, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The particles do not remain suspended in air, so close contact is required for transmission. For this reason, the mere presence of sick individuals at the site should not pose a direct threat to staff or other residents.
The virus also is not transmitted through HVAC systems, so HVAC systems should not be disabled or altered.
Frequent and thorough cleaning is an important preventive measure. Viruses can be spread through “fomites,” which are inanimate objects such as tissues, money, door handles, and office supplies. Such transfer can be minimized by frequent hand washing, cough etiquette, and other personal hygiene efforts. Staff should frequently clean common areas and frequently touched items like elevator button, door handles, and intercom panels. According to the CDC, regular household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants will work on these surfaces.
All owners and managers of multifamily housing should update their emergency procedures to include this new guidance and be prepared to implement the recommendations on a very short notice.