Media reports of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, along with the recent infection of two nurses in Dallas, have raised fears of the potential spread of Ebola in the United States, and employers are increasingly concerned about what they should do to address the possibility of Ebola in the workplace.  These concerns are heightened by the highly infectious nature of the disease and its high mortality rate.  Drawing on resources from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), we offer guidance in a three part series on Ebola in the workplace.  In this posting, we focus on facts about Ebola.  In the next, we will address legal issues, and the third part will offer practical suggestions for developing an Ebola policy or procedure.

Ebola Facts

The CDC has an Ebola webpage on its website, containing a number of documents relevant to the Ebola outbreak and its impact on U.S. citizens.  At this time, the CDC has issued a Level 3 Travel Notice for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, meaning that all non-essential travel to those areas should be avoided.  The CDC has also issued a lower level Travel Notice for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a Travel Notice for Nigeria has now been pulled).  No other countries have yet been identified by the CDC as being of concern.

Any possible infection arises from exposure to the Ebola virus.  According to the CDC, exposure to the Ebola virus includes the following:

  • Touching a person who was sick with or died of Ebola
  • Touching items that may have been in contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids (urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, and semen)
  • Caring for or staying with someone who is sick with Ebola
  • Spending a long time within 3 feet of someone who is sick with Ebola (including during travel)
  • Coming in contact with animals (such as bats and monkeys) or with raw or undercooked meat
  • Visiting a hospital where Ebola patients are being treated

Exposure to the Ebola virus does not mean that the person will become infected.  There is a 21-day incubation period following exposure, during which time an infection may develop.  If any signs of infection manifest, the individual must seek immediate medical treatment.  The signs of Ebola infection include:

  • Fever of 101.5 or more
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising

 In its Level 3 Travel Notices for the countries identified above, the CDC recommends that an individual who has been exposed to the Ebola virus contact his or her doctor.  The doctor should evaluate the individual’s exposure level and consult with public health authorities to determine whether any actions, such as medical evaluation and testing for Ebola, monitoring, or travel restrictions, are needed.

In addition, the CDC recommends that anyone traveling to an area with an Ebola outbreak, even if not exposed to Ebola, should self-monitor for the 21-day incubation period.  This means taking his/her temperature every morning and evening, and watching for the other signs of infection.  The CDC will also monitor all travelers returning from the Ebola zone, by requiring contact information including email, two phone numbers and a physical U.S. address for all people coming to the U.S. from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone.  These travelers will be required to check in daily with health officials to report their temperature and any symptoms of Ebola.

The CDC offers fact sheets on What You Need to Know About Ebola and Facts About Ebola in the U.S. that may be helpful in educating employees.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the legal issues associated with Ebola in the workplace.