As Coronavirus Spreads, Should Your Event be Prepared?

With hundreds of confirmed infections in China and the first US case reported this week, what can you do to prepare?

By now you’ve probably heard about the so-called “Novel Coronavirus” that originated in Wuhan, China.

While the CDC and other regulatory bodies in the west have reassured the public that the risk is low for their own populations, it’s still crucial for everyone in the events industry to be as informed as possible.

As Skift reports, the Chinese government estimates that its citizens will make around 3 billion trips as part of the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations.  With China about to enter its busiest travel season, the risk of an outbreak spreading across major travel routes is at its highest.

So far, the infection appears to be both less contagious and less deadly than its cousin, the SARS virus. Of course, the more the disease spreads, the more opportunity it has to mutate into a bigger threat.

It’s definitely not time to panic, but it is time to prepare.

What Is Coronavirus?

The coronavirus is a broad family of viruses that can cause symptoms as mild as the common cold or infectious diseases as deadly as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). As you might have guessed, the coronavirus almost always causes upper respiratory infections, although the severity varies wildly from strain to strain.

The one currently causing headlines has yet to be given a name like SARS or MERS, but it’s classified as “2019-nCoV” among medical professionals.

Other less deadly strains of the virus are extremely common in the animal kingdom.

How Does the Coronavirus Spread?

Authorities have traced the origin of the current outbreak to an outdoor fish market in Wuhan, China. They believe that the infection likely spread from the exotic animals that were displayed alongside the market’s fish, but so far they haven’t identified the specific type of animal responsible. (The market has since been shut down and sterilized.)

When an infection spreads from animal to human, it’s called “zoonotic.” Although this kind of transmission is rare, almost all of the most deadly viruses of the past few decades came from this kind of cross-species leap. (Before you start looking askance at your household pet, remember that the biggest culprits are places like the outdoor food markets believed to be responsible for both SARS and this most recent version of the coronavirus.)

Why are outdoor markets such rampant breeding grounds for these deadly infections? They are crowded with live animals cramped side-by-side in less-than-sterile conditions. This kind of environment allows for infections to spread between exotic animals, poultry, and livestock. (SARS has been traced to both civet cats and horseshoe bats).

And the more people there are who become infected with the virus, the more likely it is to mutate in a way that makes it possible to spread not just from animal to human, but from human to human.

What Terms Should You Know?

Here are some handy terms at a glance:

Limited Spread – a label used to describe infections that can be transmitted between humans, but only through close contact (for example, between family members).

Sustained Spread – the term used to define infections that are contagious enough to spread throughout a larger population.

Super-Spreader – the CDC defines a “super-spreader” as a particularly contagious individual who transmits the infection to 8 or more people. When this happens, authorities label it a “super-spreader event.”

While the Chinese government has now confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission for the new coronavirus, it so far appears to fall under the “limited” category. Authorities across the globe are now stressing the importance of containing the virus before it mutates into a deadlier or more contagious form.

Timeline: How Authorities are Tracking and Containing the Spread of the Coronavirus

After facing international criticism for its handling of the SARS crisis, the Chinese government is taking multiple measures to contain the current outbreak and communicating openly with international agencies.

Here’s a quick timeline of what’s happened so far:

December 31, 2019:

The Chinese government notified the World Health Organization (WHO) that an unidentified infection was causing dozens of people to be hospitalized in Wuhan.

January 1, 2020: Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, believed to be ground zero for the infection, was closed and disinfected.

January 6 – 7, 2020:

The CDC issued a level 1 travel warning and developed an Incident Management Structure in response to the growing threat, advising anyone traveling to Wuhan to be particularly careful about handwashing and avoiding outdoor markets.

January 9 – 10, 2020:

WHO confirmed that Chinese researchers had isolated a new strain of the coronavirus that was responsible for the pneumonia outbreak. 41 people tested positive. The virus claimed its first mortality.

January 10, 2020:

The genetic sequencing for the virus was made publicly available on several global scientific platforms, in this way giving medical professionals the tools necessary to perform lab tests on suspected cases.

January 13, 2020:

A Chinese woman traveling in Thailand marked the first confirmed case outside of China.

January 20, 2020: The Chinese government announced that human-to-human transmission had occurred and confirmed 217 Chinese cases (including 198 in Wuhan, 5 in Beijing, and 14 in Guangdong). A handful of cases were reported internationally — Japan (1), Thailand (2), and South Korea (1) — but all involved people who had recently been in Wuhan.

January 21, 2020:

The first confirmed case in the US was reported, and it involved an individual who had recently travelled to China. The CDC activated its Emergency Response System. The CDC announced that it had developed a real-time genetic test for the infection, and that it would begin screening incoming passengers at major airports across the country.

January 22, 2020:

The WHO is holding a meeting in Geneva “to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it.”

According to a Business Insider article published on January 21, the death toll has now reached 17, with more than 470 cases in China.

Looking ahead, China’s peak travel season is about to begin as celebrations for the Lunar New Year start on January 25 and continue until February 8.

10 Steps Event Planners Can Take to Minimize the Risk

We all know that travel poses one of the biggest threats when it comes to a pandemic reaching global proportions. Since travel is an unavoidable aspect of most major events, what can event planners do to prepare?

Global health agencies tend to emphasize transportation channels more than the destinations themselves, and fortunately many airports across the globe are taking steps to implement a screening process.

While these measures are reassuring, they don’t guarantee that an infected person won’t pass through undetected. It seems only reasonable to be concerned and take action if you are planning events in the most impacted areas or you expect your attendees will travel from some of these areas.

Here are 10 steps you can take to protect your attendees.

  1. Make sure that your attendees are aware of the safety guidelines set out by the WHO and the CDC.

These include:

  • Washing hands thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds and ideally with an alcohol-based hand rub).
  • Covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Refrain from visiting outdoor markets and avoid direct contact with farm animals and wild animals (either living or dead).
  • Avoiding close contact and shaking hands with individuals who appear to be sick.
  • Avoiding touching your face (and especially your eyes and mouth) with unwashed hands.
  1. Ensure that attendees know the first signs of infection.

These include:

  • a fever
  • a cough
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  1. Provide a point of contact for anyone who is concerned about the recent development of symptoms.

Ensure that anyone who is concerned that they may have been infected knows who to contact, and ensure that the necessary contact information is published widely through your communication channels (both leading up to and during the event)

  1. Give attendees access to basic medical supplies.

These include a thermometer and a limited supply of surgical masks. Eric Toner, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, recently told Business Insider that widespread use of surgical masks does little to help prevent the spread of infection; at the same time, he says they are helpful for medical staff.

It’s probably also a good idea to make them available for anyone who is showing immediate symptoms.

  1. Work together with your venue to develop an isolation plan for any symptomatic individuals who have recently traveled to affected areas.
  1. Create a communications plan for how to inform and reassure other attendees in the event that a suspected case does occur.
  1. Ensure that you have a list of contact information for the nearest hospitals and centers for disease control

Two examples are the CDC in the US and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC). These agencies will be able to provide the tests necessary to confirm cases, and in the event of a positive result, deploy adequate treatment and containment measures.

  1. Choose a reputable hotel, and encourage attendees to stay at vetted venues.

While going off the beaten track can often give attendees a chance to enjoy local flavors, now may not be the best time for this kind of adventurous spirit. Rundown hotels and bed-and-breakfast arrangements may pose a greater risk of environmental contamination. During the SARS outbreak, one of the biggest “super-spreading events” occurred at an apartment building where 321 residents were infected in quick succession. Faulty plumbing and a cockroach infestation were eventually pinpointed as the cause of this rapid transmission.

  1. If your venue is in a high-risk zone, ensure that it is taking extra measures to maintain hygiene best practices. 

Global spread of the SARS virus was traced to the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong. As this article in Global Health reports, the carpet outside a patient’s room tested positive for traces of the virus 3 months after the event. In response, the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection (CHP) created a set of industry best practices for prevention and containment:

  1. Advise attendees with pre-existing medical conditions to consult with a doctor before traveling to high-risk areas. If you’re hosting your event in a higher-risk area or expect a particularly large number of international guests, consider advising attendees with pre-existing medical conditions to consult with a doctor before committing to travel. People with diabetes, renal failure, and chronic lung conditions are at higher risk of developing a severe reaction to the coronavirus.

In Conclusion

With the Lunar New Year celebrations, we can expect the virus to spread even more. On Jan 23, 2020, the WHO will announce whether this is a global emergency. While many of the steps we shared are common sense, it’s important to think about them in advance.

As event planners, we are on the front lines of this public health threat. Stay prepared, and you could play a crucial role in saving lives.

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