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COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Alert Bulletin

Bulletin 4 - Monday 2nd March, 2020

Overview

The following update is designed to provide you with important information regarding the current COVID-19 (aka 2019-nCoV) outbreak. Information is sourced from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Australian Government information sources. Further updates will be issued as new information becomes available. The WHO has officially declared this to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This declaration activates a range of support and funding arrangements to enable better coordination of the outbreak at a global level.

Current Situation

  • The WHO Global Risk Assessment for COVID-19 has increased from High to Very High. Previously, only China was rated Very High. This is due to the rapid increase in local transmission in multiple countries over the past week.
  • 87,470 confirmed infections and 2,990 deaths have been reported from 64 countries. 2,870 deaths are in China and 120 from other countries (John Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard 02/03/20 6:53am).
  • Over 7,100 confirmed cases of transmission have now been reported outside of China (WHO Sitrep 41, 01 March 2020).
  • A 3.4% fatality rate is being observed. Of those infected, approximately 80% will experience mild symptoms, 15% will experience severe illness and 5% will be critically ill (WHO Sitrep 41, 01 March 2020).
  • 25 confirmed cases and one fatality have been reported in Australia, with no documented cases of human-to-human transmission. One case has been confirmed in New Zealand.
  • Restrictions preventing people from China entering Australia and New Zealand have been extended, excluding some limited exceptions for some high school students. Only citizens, residents, their dependents and spouses are permitted to enter. Travel bans are reviewed on a weekly basis by the Australian and New Zealand Governments.
  • Additional travel restrictions have been imposed, preventing people from Iran travelling to Australia and New Zealand. This is due to the rapidly increasing rate of confirmed cases in and from Iran and higher mortality rate.
  • The S&P / ASX 200 dropped by almost 10% over the past week, with these falls either matched or exceeded by most other global indices.

Clarifying use of the term ‘Pandemic’

There has been significant commentary over the past week as to whether the WHO should declare the current outbreak a pandemic. Despite not taking this step, many scientists have suggested that the rapid spread beyond China indicates that we are now in a pandemic situation. This is defined as an epidemic of a new disease that occurs across a number of geographic locations.

There is no criteria for when or if the WHO declares an outbreak a pandemic. They have stated however, that they do not see any gain by giving the current outbreak this label, and are concerned that it may result in further social and economic harm to countries battling to contain local transmission.

Further to this, the WHO no longer refers to the Pandemic Alert phases that were used in the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak to classify a disease. Instead, their highest level of alert is the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

So, what does this mean to us here in Australia and New Zealand? Whether or not we use the term ‘pandemic’ makes no difference to how we manage the potential social and economic impacts of the disease. So far, these impacts have largely been related to business and supply chain disruption. With global containment measures failing to halt the spread of the disease, it’s likely that we are going to see further people and social impacts over the coming weeks.

Note: given that most organisations are already familiar with the term ‘Pandemic Response Planning’, RiskLogic will continue to use the same terminology when referring to plans that are designed to manage a major disease outbreak.

The need for response planning

Due to the rapidly evolving global COVID-19 situation, there is a high probability that the following events will occur over the coming weeks:

  • Continual spread of cases to new countries.
  • Increase in community spread (local transmission as opposed to imported cases) in affected areas. China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are countries of most concern. Indonesia still has not reported any cases.
  • Increase in reported cases in Australia and New Zealand, with some community spread and the potential for further deaths.
  • Potential for additional travel bans on persons from affected countries, as well as restrictions on some community gatherings or sporting events. By way of example, Japan is closing all schools across the country for four weeks affecting 13 million children.
  • Continued supply chain disruption as Chinese factories struggle to resume full production, and manufacturing in other countries becomes impacted.
  • Heightened media speculation about the social impacts in Australia and New Zealand, causing fear and concern within the general population. This may cause a spike in GP and hospital visits as well as panic buying in supermarkets.
  • Increase in absenteeism from employees who place themselves into self-isolation or decide to stay away from work for fear of contracting the disease.

It is now imperative that organisations engage in some form of Pandemic Response Planning. This should include:

  • Developing checklists or action plans for each response stage (Preparedness, Standby, Response – Initial Action, Response -Targeted Action and Stand-down (refer Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza (AHMPPI) model).
  • Confirming roles and responsibilities for all key parties involved in response, including senior management and Crisis Management Team.
  • Establishing communication requirements for staff and other key stakeholders.
  • Establishing infection control procedures.
  • Reviewing requirements to maintain continuity of business, linking to your existing Business Continuity Plans.
  • Identifying alternate workplace arrangements, in the event social distancing is required.

If community spread does occur locally, organisations must be in a position to implement a proportionate response. Given how fast the situation is changing, the window to prepare your organisation to protect staff and maintain continuity of business is closing rapidly.

COVID-19 vs Seasonal Flu

Interspersed with the many headlines on COVID-19 has been criticism of the WHO and Governmental responses by using a comparison of this disease to seasonal flu. Whilst it is true that the flu and other diseases cause many more deaths each year than COVID-19 has so far, it is important to understand that:

  • This is a novel disease which means we have no immunity against it. If exposed, there is a very high likelihood that you will be infected. With 20% of infections causing severe or critical illness, our health system would be rapidly overwhelmed.
  • COVID-19 appears to have a mortality rate that is significantly higher than the flu. If it breaks out into the general community and causes widespread infection, then the impacts will be much greater than that of the flu with many more deaths and very significant social and economic disruption.