Few words are scarier than "epidemic" and the news of Wuhan and other Chinese cities being shut down and other nations, including the United States, sending jets to retrieve their citizens from these places just adds to the fear. But there's less to be afraid of than you may think, especially if you follow a few simple and common sense precautions.

The new coronavirus is scary, I get it. I live in Snohomish County, Washington, and I spent Wednesday evening last week in Everett, about half a mile away from Providence Medical Center, where the first known U.S. victim of the virus had just arrived for treatment and quarantine. Knowing the new virus was so close by without knowing much else about it was a little creepy, I have to admit.

But consider the data that we're now getting about the virus, officially called 2019-nCoV. It has about a 3 percent mortality rate among known cases, but since there are almost certainly a large number of unknown cases, the actual mortality rate is likely much lower. By comparison, the familiar influenza virus that arrives around this time every year has a mortality rate of less than 1 percent. As with flu, the most at-risk for serious repercussions are the elderly and those who are in bad health or have compromised immune systems. If that describes you, you may need to take extra precautions to avoid infection since a vaccine for the new coronavirus is at least several months away.

In the meantime, here's what every smart leader, and employee, should do to avoid disruptions from both the coronavirus and the flu.

1. Don't go to work if you feel sick, and don't let your employees come in either.

Our American tendency to take a cold pill and tough it out when we don't feel well is one of the worst habits we have. If you have any symptoms at all, and in particular a fever, you absolutely must stay home from work because you risk damaging the productivity of your entire workplace. This would be true even if there were no coronavirus.

Given concerns about the new illness and the fact that it's flu season as well, you should make certain that your employees don't come to work sick either. You might also review your paid time off or sick day policy to make sure employees never feel compelled to come in if they don't feel well. They won't be doing you any favors if they do.

2. Wash your hands. A lot.

People worry about catching viruses when other people cough or sneeze in their vicinity, and of course that is one way of contracting the flu and most likely the coronavirus as well. But it's also alarmingly easy to catch the flu or another virus if you touch an object or surface that was touched by someone who was contagious any time over the previous 48 hours, especially if you then touch your nose or mouth. 

This is where frequent hand-washing comes in. The more often you wash your hands, the less likely you are to infect yourself if you've touched something that had virus on it, and to give any virus you may have to someone else. Unfortunately, it's possible to be contagious before you have symptoms and with the new coronavirus, you can appear healthy but be contagious for up to two weeks. Which means that if you have any reason whatsoever to think you might have been exposed to the new virus, you should wash your hands very often, and try to limit close contact with other people for that amount of time. Elisabeth Rosenthal, a physician and journalist who lived in China during the SARS epidemic and covered it for The New York Times, kept herself and her children safe, mainly with frequent hand-washing.

3. Unless you're a health care worker or you have flu symptoms, don't wear a mask.

If you're healthy, wearing a mask is unlikely to help you in most situations, especially if you don't wear a new one each time you go out. On the other hand, masks have been shown to protect health care workers who may be exposed to the coronavirus and other illnesses in the course of their work. Because of panic over the new virus, some health officials are concerned about a shortage of masks for those health care workers who need them most -- and if they get infected, the disease is likelier to spread. In other words, though it's counterintuitive, wearing a mask when you don't need one could actually increase your chances of getting the coronavirus, or another virus. If you're coughing or sneezing, though, wearing a mask may prevent you from sharing your cold or flu with anyone else. In Asia, many people wear masks because it's considered polite to do so if you have cold or flu symptoms.

4. Give careful thought to your supply chain.

Even if no one in your office gets sick, the coronavirus could be a headache for your business because dealing with the outbreak may interfere with China's ability to be the manufacturing juggernaut we've all come to depend on for just about everything. Wuhan, the now shut-down city where the outbreak originated, is sometimes called the Chicago of China for its central location and importance as a transportation hub. The automobile industry, in particular, has set up shop in Wuhan, and General Motors, Ford, and Nissan all plan to close factories in accordance with the Chinese government mandate to extend the Lunar New Year holiday to February 3 as part of its effort to contain the outbreak. 

If your company is dependent on products or product components made in China, it might be smart to stockpile a little more than you normally would in case there's more widespread disruption to manufacturing if the disease continues to spread. If the virus is contained right away, you may wind up with some extra supplies. If it isn't, you may be glad you have them on hand.

Published on: Jan 30, 2020
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.