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The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in Wuhan, China is now threatening to become a worldwide pandemic. There are practical consequences that law offices, as well as all businesses should consider.

The first American death has just occurred, with almost 3,000 known deaths worldwide and almost 90,000 confirmed cases.  All the early numbers were suspect, given the Chinese authorities’ initial paranoia and secretiveness regarding the outbreak. This may have contributed to major outbreaks now raging in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), once the world leader in fighting disease, has been working with the Chinese and other international governments and  agencies, but has had some major missteps. To assist state agencies (the front line defense against epidemics, like the Minnesota Department of Health), the CDC, after considerable delay, shipped tests to confirm COVID-19.  These American tests turned out to be faulty. Thus, by February 28, China was doing 1.6 million tests per week, South Korea had done 65,000 tests but the CDC had only done 459 tests! Moreover, the CDC initially refused U.C. Davis Hospital’s request to test a person based on their lack of exposure or travel to China, but who later turned out to be the first “community” transmittal case in the country. (Cohen – U.S. Badly Bungled coronavirus testing, Science Magazine, 2/28/2020).

Did these problems result from the Trump administration’s 2018 elimination of the global pandemic coordinator position from the National Security Council? Or maybe the budget cuts forced on the CDC that chopped 80% of its efforts to combat overseas disease outbreaks? Just weeks ago the administration proposed cutting CDC funding another 16%. Meanwhile the CDC desperately seeks additional emergency funding from Congress. As President Bush learned after Katrina, there are consequences to slashing emergency preparedness funding.

How Bad Will it Get?

Although thorough research has not been completed on COVID-19, we know a few things that set it apart from the usual bugs:

  • No Immunity. Because it is a novel mutation of SARS, none of us has any immunity from previous infections. Typically, most of us have had one or two bouts of flu in our lives from the major influenza strains, so even if we don’t get a flu shot we have some built-in resistance. Even if exposed our bodies have antibodies ready to fight from those previous infections, their effectiveness based on how close the current virus is to the one we previously beat.But novel viral mutations, whose molecules do not resemble previous infections are not recognized by our immune system until we are seriously ill. The 1918-20 so-called ‘Spanish Flu,’  the first H1N1 epidemic, killed 50-100 million people worldwide, in part because it was a novel mutation.


  • Deadliness. Unlike many other contagions, COVID-19 has a relatively easy effect on children.  As of this writing, there are zero deaths reported under age ten among the 3,000 deaths.  Unfortunately, for most of the graying readers of this article, the rest is bad news. Current estimates give 2-3% of those infected as the fatality rate, ten to twenty times higher than seasonal flu viruses that yearly ravage the frail and elderly. For those 70 or older, the fatality rate increases to 8%! 


  • Contagiousness. The CDC warns that it’s still early, and not much is known, but that COVID-19 “seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”) in some affected geographic areas.” It also warns:

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

These droplets can land in the mouths, eyes or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

It’s also possible that a person can get COVID-19 from surfaces, but not as likely. People appear to be most contagious when they are the sickest, although they may also be somewhat contagious before showing symptoms.


  • Experience so Far. We’ve seen the rapid spread of the disease in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy. We’ve seen Iranian officials scoff at criticisms of their efforts, only to admit the following day they themselves were infected.  We’ve even seen the Pope recently cancel three days of events with “a bad cold.”Can we do better?

Practical Advice for Law Firms.

Managers and owners of law firms can take steps to protect their staff and clients. Some of these steps are the same ones to protect against any respiratory or other contagious illness. 


  • Cut Travel. Don’t go to China, Japan, Iran, South Korea or Italy (No, Duh!). But there are some spots which may be North American Hot Spots. Right now, various spots in California and Seattle as well as Vancouver and Toronto have more than a few cases. Chicago has three.

    But beyond those locations, consider if you need to fly at all.  Can you do a video deposition? Is that conference that important? Remember, when you’re flying, you’re in a narrow closed tube of metal sharing air with 100-400 strangers who may or may not  know how to properly cover a cough or sneeze. Think about how often you smell someone rows ahead of you relieving ‘intestinal distress.’ Do you really want to inhale his COVID-19 virus this month?
  • Encourage Sick Staff to stay home. We all love the reliable staffer who shows up every time, regardless of blizzards, school closings, or any obstacle.  But that same “nothing-can-stop-me” attitude can drive that employee to bring illness to the workplace. While their attitude may be admirable, it won’t be if your entire staff is exposed and goes down with the bug.You need to have a good and liberal paid sick leave policy. And if they insist on working, send them home with a laptop (and plenty of fluids).And don’t forget to set a good example.  There is nothing worse than a boss who says all the right things, but thinks he or she is too important to follow the same rules, and comes in hacking and coughing, handing files and papers (and disease) to every staff member.
  • Educate and Encourage Hygiene. Post health department posters and set a good example.  Here’s CDC recommendations, (along with specific suggestions for your office):
    • Handwashing:  Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (If you need a timer, Hum Happy Birthday twice), especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing (Make sure your restrooms are well-stocked with soap and towels).
    • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty. (Have plenty of Purell available in your waiting room, conference rooms and offices.)
    • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. (Make sure you have plenty of tissues available, and obvious trash receptacles).
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe (If your office is only cleaned weekly, consider adding a daily disinfecting routine during flu seasons).
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

The CDC provides  Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to COVID-19.

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