Coronavirus impact — but not the disease — spreads to Virginia
No cases confirmed, but businesses and hospitals are making preparations.
This story will be updated periodically as information is received.
The coronavirus, which has spread across China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and other countries, has inevitably spread to the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 59 people in the U.S. have confirmed cases of the flulike illness known as COVID-19, and public health officials say it’s expected to spread further.
Amazon.com and other retailers are running low on preventive medical gear, including masks and hazmat suits. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 4.4% Thursday, and the Nasdaq Composite declined 4.5%. The S&P 500 was down 10%, the fastest slide from an all-time high since at least 1980, according to news reports. On Friday morning, stocks continued to fall at a rate last seen in 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported.
No cases have been confirmed in Virginia so far, but hospitals, businesses and airports in the commonwealth have emergency plans and measures in place and are closely watching CDC guidelines and updates about the virus.
Here’s a summary of what’s going on in Virginia as of Friday morning:
FRIDAY UPDATE: The University of Virginia has warned students who plan to travel abroad about the virus and has “strongly recommended” that students not travel to locations with CDC or State Department high alerts.
“While we have not cancelled any current or existing study abroad programs, the university will cancel any such programs, even if already under way, at any location for which the CDC sets a warning level 3, or the State Department sets a warning level 3 or 4,” Allen W. Groves, the university’s dean of students, said in a statement. As of Friday, the CDC has placed the following countries at its top warning level: China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea, and the State Department has placed a warning level 4 on China and Iran related to the virus, and level 3 warnings for South Korea and Mongolia.
U.Va., which employs approximately 30,000 people, asked that employees share any travel plans with their respective supervisors. Employees are eligible for travel assistance insurance, but the university notes that there are exclusions regarding epidemics and pandemics. Travelers who use the university’s travel vendor, Christopherson Travel, will receive information on insurance.
“If you are planning to travel soon, be aware that there is significant uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus,” Patricia M. Lampkin, U.Va.’s vice president and chief student affairs officer, wrote in a statement to faculty and staff.
FRIDAY UPDATE: National Association of Convenience Stores says it is monitoring coronavirus developments in the United States. Last July, NACS launched an emergency preparedness toolkit to help convenience retailers with disaster planning, preparation and recovery.
“The 24/7 convenience and fuel retailing industry is well-versed in emergency preparations, and some of the same best practices we employ in the face of hurricanes and other hazards, for example, can be applied to operations in the face of a national health crisis,” said Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic communications.
Food and beverage giant Nestlé SA — with its U.S. headquarters based in Arlington County — put a travel restriction on its 291,000 employees Wednesday, asking them not to travel internationally for business through mid-March. They also recommend replacing domestic travel with other methods of communication when possible.
“We have focused on ensuring the safety of our people and their families and introducing protective measures for all our facilities,” Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said in a statement. “We are working closely with the Chinese authorities as they take measures to contain this epidemic, building on our significant experience and expertise on the ground.”
China is Nestlé’s second-largest market and contributes to 8% of the company’s global sales, Schneider said in Nestlé’s full-year results for 2019.
Amazon.com Inc., which has hired about 700 people for its East Coast headquarters in Arlington, has already placed travel restrictions on its employees too. The e-commerce giant has asked that employees defer business travel to and from China and has required that its employees stationed in China telecommute.
“We place tremendous value and focus on the well-being and safety of our employees,” an Amazon spokesperson says. “Amazon has travel restrictions in place and is providing precautionary advice to our employees in line with health and safety guidelines provided by the WHO [World Health Organization] and regional health authorities like the CDC.”
Those who are not able to do their jobs remotely are able to stay home with pay.
Amazon employees who are returning from China, South Korea and parts of Europe for work have also been asked to telecommute for 14 days after their arrival in the U.S. If they experience coronavirus symptoms, Amazon has asked that they seek medical attention before returning to work. The company has also donated masks, isolation suits, disposable gloves and medical supplies to affected cities.
Bigger companies like Amazon and Nestlé tend to have plans in place for outbreaks and other crises, says Nancy McGehee, professor and department head of the hospitality and tourism management program at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech.
“The bigger the company — the more structure — the more prepared they probably are. … They’ve got the critical mass,” McGehee says. “They’ve got tens of thousands of employees who can be on this immediately … and [Amazon can be] nimble enough to make it happen quickly.”
The Roanoke-based Carilion Clinic health care system has taken additional precautions to protect and monitor patients. Patients exhibiting flu-like symptoms will need to complete a travel questionnaire including questions about travel to affected areas by the patient or people close within a few weeks of symptoms. Face masks will also be provided to patients who have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
“Should a patient screen positive based on the previous criteria, we have set protocols in place to manage care safely and effectively for that patient and staff, all the while keeping local health authorities in the loop,” says Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, medical director of Carilion Infection Prevention and Control. Carilion is also updating information related to the virus on its Carilion Clinic blog.
FRIDAY UPDATE: Carilion has activated an internal incident management team to head coronavirus preparations to monitor the illness in real-time and forecast the needs of patients, employees and visitors, Carilion spokesperson Hannah Curtis said.
A multi-disciplinary team is leading the effort, which has three key objectives: limiting and preventing employee, patient and visitor exposure; protecting employees and facilities; and ensuring systems are in place to care for patients who present with coronavirus systems.
In addition to travel questionnaires that were in place as of Thursday, Carilion is educating employees on best safety and operational practices, holding situational briefs with leadership and staff, and doing simulations to test and improve protocols.
“The situation is fluid, and incident management will continue to monitor and address needs as they evolve,” Curtis said.
Bon Secours Mercy Health, which operates 11 hospitals in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions, is adhering to CDC’s recommendations, they said Thursday.
“Our clinical leaders have implemented protocols that are consistent with CDC guidelines, and we’re closely monitoring the situation across our ministry,” said Emma Swann, a Bon Secours spokesperson. “In the event that Bon Secours were to have a patient with a confirmed case of the coronavirus, we would release more information at that time.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner issued a statement Thursday encouraging Virginians to heed the advice of the CDC, including travel advisories and tips on staying safe. “My office has been in regular contact with officials on the ground in Virginia,” he said. “Our priority is to make sure they have the resources they need and are fully prepared to respond to any potential cases of coronavirus in the commonwealth.”
“We would certainly expect local businesses to be impacted by both travel and supply chain disruptions,” Warner spokesperson Valeria Rivadeneira added Friday.
Travel and hospitality
Meanwhile, the travel and hospitality industry is looking to the CDC for guidance on how to steer employees and customers away from the virus. The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association (VRLTA) recommends that employees have a refresher about hand washing, covering coughs and staying home if you’re sick.
“These three aren’t very glamorous, but they really are effective,” McGehee said. “But then there’s at the management level of having a plan. Most already have things in place for a variety of different issues.”
Worldwide hotel chain Hilton, headquartered in McLean, has more than 180 hotels in Virginia and has put in place a rebooking and cancellation waiver for guests who plan to travel to, through or from China, Italy and South Korea, which have all had confirmed cases of the virus.
The waiver is in place for guests traveling to, through or from China until March 31, and for Italy and South Korea travelers until March 8. Other large hotel chains, such as Marriott, have similar plans in place, McGehee said.
Despite the options offered to customers, the tourism and travel industries are likely to take a major hit from the “ripple effects” of the coronavirus, McGehee says. According to data released by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company, a U.S. coronavirus outbreak could cause a $10 billion loss during the next four years to the U.S. travel and hospitality industries. In comparison, the SARS virus outbreak caused a $7 billion deficit during a few years.
“It is definitely something that will take time for us to recover [from],” McGehee says, crediting how the industry can be elastic. “It’s not just a short blip on the radar. There are long-term impacts.” Chinese tourists alone make up at least 7% of international travelers to the U.S. each year and spend an average of $6,000 per visit, according to Tourism Economics.
Although Richmond International Airport does not offer any direct international flights, the airport does serve as a hub or layover spot for travelers.
“We see plenty of international travelers,” said Troy Bell, marketing and air service development director at RIC, “but they clear U.S. Customs at a gateway en route to RIC.” Bell added that the airport communicates with the Virginia Department of Health, Henrico County and the CDC on communicable diseases.
McGehee herself had plans to travel to Japan for work in early April — a trip she canceled as a result of the virus.