Update: At 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, Public Health Madison Dane County updated its travel recommendations regarding the coronavirus to align with current CDC advice. The county now recommends avoiding travel to “Level 2 and Level 3 countries with widespread illness” and to “states with community transmission.” As of 12 p.m. on Friday, one CDC map seems to label the entire U.S. as “sustained community spread,” while another state-by-state CDC map shows community transmission as “undetermined” or “N/A” for all states except Washington, California and New York.
“There’s “a lack of solid definition from the CDC of when you cross that (community spread) threshold,” Sarah Mattes of Public Health Madison Dane County told the Cap Times on Friday. “We would just ask people to avoid places that the CDC is classified as sustained community transmission, and recognize that there's still risk traveling anywhere that has undetermined community transmission.”
Across the United States, the novel coronavirus, now classified by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, is putting an end to business as usual. Universities have canceled or postponed in-person instruction, organizers have called off major music festivals and conferences, at least one major museum has announced it will temporarily close , and some employers have shifted to remote work and halted or slowed business travel.
Malia Jones, an assistant scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory, thinks such drastic steps are necessary.
“There's no need to panic, because we know exactly what to do. We need to implement swift, thorough social distancing measures for healthy and sick people, high-risk and low-risk people,” said Jones, who studies how geography affects health. She’s been sharing the message everywhere from Twitter to “Dr. Phil.”
But for Epic Systems, the Verona-based health data developer that employs nearly 10,000 people, much is continuing as normal.
“We understand the situation is fluid, so we will continue to make adjustments as needed,” the company said in a statement released Wednesday night.
But the statement explained that employees who are feeling well will still be working in-person, noting that “it’s fortunate that our staff work primarily in separate offices” rather than cubicles. The company has also offered hand sanitizer and take-out containers in its cafeterias, encouraging employees to eat in their offices.
The company also said it is “accommodating the needs of staff who could be at heightened risk of “serious complications from COVID-19,” the disease caused by this coronavirus, though the statement did not specify what those accommodations might be. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that older adults and individuals with diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease are at higher risk for complications.
Larger internal meetings “will be conducted virtually, divided into smaller groups, postponed, or canceled." XGM, the annual “Experts Group Meeting” conference that brought more than 9,000 attendees to the Verona campus last year, has been called off. The conference is scheduled for April 27 through May 8, though the conference website notes that Epic will post updates if plans change due to the coronavirus.
In a Wednesday evening email to Epic staff shared with the Cap Times, the company said they would provide an update on the April conference by the end of the week.
Eight cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Wisconsin, though official tallies count only those who have tested positive. Health experts say it’s likely that many more people across the country are sick but untested. Meanwhile, an additional 37 Wisconsinites who may have been exposed to the virus on the Grand Princess cruise ship are on their way back to the state.
But the risks Epic employees face aren’t just local. Epic’s software is used in health care facilities across the world, and some employees regularly travel out-of-state to visit the hospitals they work with.
For now, that travel is continuing; the company has not made a company-wide decision to halt travel, though employees may reschedule “non-essential” business travel if they wish. For “essential” travel, such as the “go-lives” when Epic staff help a hospital implement an Epic tool for the first time, employees who don’t want to travel were instructed in the Wednesday night email to “work with your trip coordinator to find a replacement.”
The Cap Times asked Epic whether any special accommodations would be made for staff whose family members are at heightened risk, but the statement did not directly address that question.
As Epic continues to send healthy staff into hospitals across the country, hospitals across the country have taken steps to reduce the number of people in their buildings.
On Tuesday, UW Health announced new visitor guidelines in light of COVID-19, limiting most patients at American Family Children's Hospital to two visitors at a time. Patients at other UW Health facilities may have only one visitor at a time. UW Health hospitals, with the exception of UW School of Medicine and Public Health sites, have also suspended all visitor gatherings of more than 50 people and all groups for patients age 60 and older.
Epic’s travel policy conflicts with advice from county public health officials, who recommend against domestic travel to states with more than 10 COVID-19 cases.
“We ask that the community follow those recommendations but cannot hold them to that,” said Sarah Mattes of Public Health Madison and Dane County.
Mattes added that her office’s recommendations would be updated Thursday to more closely align with recent changes to the CDC’s advice.
Meanwhile, Jones is alarmed that many have been slow to follow such warnings. She described the current public health situation as a “cluster----.”
“That's lay language for ‘pandemic,’ Jones said. “It's like we all just noticed that someone threw a match into a dumpster a month ago and it's been smoldering there.”
Until governments issue mandatory procedures, she thinks individuals and businesses will need to limit their work themselves — now.
“We all assumed someone else will call the fire department, but no one seems willing to. In a week, I expect an inferno. And I hope I'm wrong.”
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