This article was last updated January 2022.
Public health emergencies can feel overwhelming and isolating, and it may be difficult to understand where your organization fits into a response. Instead of adopting the "wait and see" approach, proactive actions can make a huge difference for the comfort, security, and safety of your employees and business operations.
One of the key themes of any public health emergency or disease outbreak? Misinformation. Getting insights and updates from trusted sources is step one to managing any response. So let's start from the top.
What's the difference between an epidemic, a pandemic and an endemic?
Usually, a disease outbreak, or a sudden rise of confirmed cases in a particular location, is phase one. If the outbreak continues to grow and spreads to a larger population or a region, then it reaches epidemic status. A pandemic occurs when an epidemic spreads to a truly global scale with sustained outbreaks on different continents. When a disease is spread regularly and never fully goes away (like the flu), it's considered an endemic. However, there aren't precise guidelines to determine when a disease outbreak changes into a new classification.
In the past decade or so, we've seen:
- The 2020 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic External Site. Some experts believe COVID-19 could eventually become an endemic. External Link
- The 2019 measles outbreak External Site, which saw the greatest number of reported cases since 1992 in the U.S.
- The 2015–2016 Zika virus epidemic External Site, which included infected individuals in 86 countries and territories External Site.
- The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic External Site, which infected an estimated 60.8 million Americans.
For a disease infection to reach pandemic levels, usually the disease is new to humans (or one that hasn't been seen in humans for a long time), so immunity is low. And because of the scale, there is often a higher rate of deaths and greater economic and social disruption.
What are trustworthy international, national and local resources for outbreak information?
Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) External Site monitors disease outbreaks and pulls together resources across geopolitical borders. It funds and coordinates humanitarian responses and recommends actions External Site to control high-threat infections.
- For the latest on a global scale, check out the WHO emergencies page External Site.
Within the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services External Site (HHS) leads the overall response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coordinates throughout the country and globally External Site to monitor, detect and investigate outbreaks.
- For the latest on a national scale, reference the current outbreaks list External Site coordinated by the CDC.
- For travel-specific considerations, check out the traveler's health CDC resource External Site.
In Iowa and South Dakota, the Iowa Department of Public Health External Site and the South Dakota Department of Health External Site help coordinate local responses to disease outbreaks.
Get important health plan updates regarding COVID-19.
Wellmark's top priority is to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and preserve access to health care. View important updates and get answers to questions regarding COVID-19 here Opens in a new window.
Tips for protecting workers during a pandemic
Consider these items when creating a workplace preparedness plan.
- Encourage healthy habits.
- Inform older adults in your office about any potential (or high) risks of contracting viruses External Site.
- Take all preventive measures External Site to keep your workplace and employees healthy and safe.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze (with a tissue or into the crook of your elbow/sleeve).
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Wash hands often with soap and water External Site (or at least 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer) for at least 20 seconds.
- Stay home if you are sick.
- Consider a virtual visit Opens in a new window. Doctor On Demand® offers virtual visits with board-certified physicians for a number of minor ailments, from a run-of-the-mill cold or flu to headaches, skin conditions or bronchitis. Physicians can even prescribe medication, if needed.
- Use BeWell 24/7SM, which connects Wellmark customers with real people who can help with a variety of health-related concerns no matter the time or day. Just have them call Eight, Four, Four, Eight, Four, Be Well 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Evaluate business travel. Are you sending employees to areas of concern listed on the travelers resource External Site? Consider if it's necessary to be in-person or if the trip can be postponed.
- Develop, test, and implement a business continuity plan. This short overview from the Society of Human Resource Managers External Site is a good starting place.
If you or an employee thinks they may have been exposed to a disease, please contact local health authorities. If it's an emergency, please seek care immediately.