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What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that are common and are typically associated with mild illnesses, similar to the common cold.

A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. The severe diseases have included:

  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) (first reported in 2012, all cases have been linked to countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula)
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV)

In late 2019, a coronavirus was identified in China (Wuhan City), and was initially known as 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). An illness was reported on December 31st, 2019, and confirmation of the coronavirus identification occurred on January 7th, 2020. Formally, the disease is now known as coronavirus disease or COVID-19. The virus causing the disease is known as "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2).

What is the current status of the coronavirus?

This document will discuss general precautions a workplace can take to help lower the spread of coronaviruses. For updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, please see:

What can a workplace do?

Do everything possible, under the circumstances, to protect the health and safety of workers and customers by providing adequate information, education/training, cleaning and disinfecting, and recommending measures such as non-medical masks or personal protective equipment, as appropriate.

Workplaces should have a policy in place that outlines their requirements when people may be sick or absent to care for others. This policy should indicate how to notify the workplace, and if there is a requirement for a doctor's note and when. Organizations may wish to suspend the need for a doctor's or medical note for the absence to reduce the burden on the health care system.

During a pandemic, businesses may be forced to close or to operate using low-contact methods. Allow employees to work remotely where possible. Assess the need to report directly to the workplace on an individual or job role basis.

Keep records of who was present at the workplace each day. If an employee or client is confirmed to have COVID-19, consult with public health for guidance on next steps.

Encourage physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette at all times.

Screening methods such as checklists and temperature checks may be used when employees report to work. Use a screening questionnaire from a public health agency, and remind employees to stay at home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, even if mild.

Pandemics often occur in waves, meaning periods of higher restrictive measures may be reintroduced if infection rates increase.

Monitor the situation by visiting the organizations listed above for more information.

Workplaces can help by having an infection control plan which includes details such as:

  • Using physical distancing methods to maintain 2 metres (6 feet) between people. Methods include signs, posters, crowd control stanchions, room dividers, and floor markings.
  • Installing physical barriers (e.g., plexiglass) when physical distancing is not possible. Do not use items that have gaps or holes (such as plants or trolleys). Do not create tripping hazards or “blind spot” areas when setting up barriers.
  • Using physical distancing techniques, such as maintaining a 2 metre (6 foot) distance at all times, using telephone, video conferencing, or the internet to conduct as much business as possible (including within the same building), allow employees to work from home, or to work flexible hours to avoid peak public transportation times or crowding the workplace.
  • Providing clean hand washing facilities, with soap, water and disposable towels.
  • Offering alcohol-based hand sanitizers (with at least 60% alcohol) when regular washing facilities are not available (or to people on the road).
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched or shared surfaces, spaces, and objects often, including lunch rooms, wash rooms, etc. Clean and disinfect touch points and surfaces such as doorknobs, handles, railings, kettles, etc. more often with household disinfectants or bleach solution (5 millilitres (mL) of (5%) bleach per 250 mL of water. Use a disinfectant with a drug identification number (DIN). This number means that it has been approved for use in Canada.
  • Disinfecting all high-touch electronic devices (keyboards, tablets, smartboards) with alcohol or disinfectant wipes, if the device can withstand liquids.
  • Making sure that any person required to clean and disinfect has received the appropriate training and uses any required personal protective equipment.
  • Providing boxes of tissues and encourage their use.
  • Providing equipment, tools or communication devices for individual use. If items are shared, they must be cleaned and disinfected between users.
  • Reminding staff to not share cups, glasses, dishes and cutlery. Be sure dishes are washed in soap and water after use.
  • Removing magazines and papers from waiting areas or common rooms (such as tea rooms and kitchens).
  • Making sure ventilation systems are working properly.
  • Cleaning a person's workstation or other areas, especially where they have been if a person has been suspected or identified with an infection (e.g., use a disinfectant wipe).
  • Offering services using methods of low contact, such as online ordering, online or phone check-in, delivery, curbside pick up, or by using phone or video instead of meeting in person.
  • Do not offer services that involve close person to person proximity (e.g., garment fittings) or hold activities such as buffet style drinks or food, valet services, face-to-face meetings, large gatherings, or conferences.
  • Determine if the use of non-medical masks/face coverings or personal protective equipment is appropriate and acceptable to your workplace, employees, and/or customers. Consider any current recommendations from public health or other authorities when determining these measures.

How does a coronavirus spread?

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they usually begin in animals. For example, investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans, and MERS-CoV was transmitted from dromedary camels to humans.

In some cases, the coronavirus can evolve further and spread from person-to-person. The route of transmission is not always known, but the viruses are generally thought to spread by respiratory droplets when people are in close contact.

SARS-CoV-2 spreads by:

  • respiratory droplets generated when you cough or sneeze
  • close, prolonged personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • touching something with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands

Health Canada states that with SARS-CoV-2, person to person spread does occur when there is close contact.

What is meant by “close contact”?

Generally speaking, examples of close contact include:

  • Having cared for or lived with a person known to have the virus, including being within 2 metres (6 feet) or within the room or care area of a person with the virus
  • Direct contact with droplets from coughing or sneezing by someone affected by the virus
  • When a person touches a surface contaminated with infectious fluids and then touches their mouth, nose, or eyes

What are symptoms of infection from coronavirus?

Each coronavirus will vary in the severity of infection it causes.  Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

COVID 2019 presents with fever and symptoms of lower respiratory illness (e.g., cough or difficulty breathing). Common symptoms include:

  • new or worsening cough
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • temperature equal to or over 38°C
  • feeling feverish
  • chills
  • fatigue or weakness
  • muscle or body aches
  • new loss of smell or taste
  • headache
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting)
  • feeling very unwell

There is also evidence indicates that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be transmitted by someone who is infected but not showing symptoms, including people who

  • have not yet developed symptoms (pre-symptomatic)
  • never develop symptoms (asymptomatic)

Identification for SARS-CoV-2 is made through tests as well as the person’s history (especially recent travel).

Which occupations are at risk?

People caring for individuals with COVID 2019 are at the greatest risk for contracting the disease such as health care workers in acute care hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, mental health hospitals, long term care facilities, emergency departments, and others who work close to their clients or patients.

Persons living with individuals with COVID 2019 may also be at risk for contracting the disease. Individuals who are older (over 65), or who have underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems are also at higher risk.

What are the recommendations to prevent transmission of a coronavirus?

Standard recommendations from the World Health Organization to the public to prevent the spread of infection include:

  • Frequently clean hands by using soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol)
  • When coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash hands
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early and share previous travel history with your health care provider
  • When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces that have been in contact with animals
  • The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices

The general guidelines for public and most workplaces (non-healthcare) are outlined in the following documents:

Know the appropriate procedures for general sanitation and infection control, and how to work safely with hazardous products, including bleach.

If using gloves when cleaning, always wear the appropriate type of glove for the product you are using. The appropriate type of glove material will be listed on that product's safety data sheet (SDS). If this information is missing, contact the supplier or manufacturer of the product. Manufacturers of chemical protective gloves and clothing may also assist their customers in making appropriate choices.

What are measures that can be taken in workplaces that provide health care?

For health care workplaces, the following precautions should help prevent transmission. In addition, check with organizations such as Health Canada, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) who will be monitoring any new situation, and will include specific infection control guidance for workers at risk as the information becomes available.

As stated by the Government of Canada:

“In addition to the consistent application of routine practices, follow contact and droplet precautions. This [procedure] includes the appropriate selection and use of all of the following personal protective equipment (PPE):

  • Gloves that cover the hands and wrists
  • A long-sleeved cuffed gown
  • Facial protection, such as mask and eye protection, face shield, or mask with visor attachment that fully covers the eyes, nose and mouth and ensures no part of the face is exposed.
  • An N95 respirator (plus eye protection) when performing aerosol-generating medical procedures (AGMPs).

Hand hygiene should be performed whenever indicated, paying particularly attention to during and after removal of PPE, and after leaving the patient care environment.”

Note that no single respirator or any type of personal protective equipment (PPE) can be expected to provide protection against all types of hazards. Be sure you are wearing the correct PPE for the task.  If PPE is used, it should be managed as part of a complete PPE program which will include selection, fitting, training, inspection, use, cleaning, maintenance, and storage as appropriate.

The following are practices that can be used in healthcare or similar workplaces.  In all cases, follow the recommendations of your workplace as there may be considerations specific to a situation that require other practices.

Hand Hygiene

Use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer at the point-of-care as the preferred method for hand hygiene in all healthcare settings unless certain exceptions apply.  Hands must be cleaned before and after contact with a patient, after contact with body fluids, and after contact with items known to be contaminated with respiratory secretions.

Disposable Gloves

Gloves should be used as an additional measure, not as a substitute for hand washing. Gloves must be put on before contact with the patient and they should be removed and hands washed before leaving the patient's room.


Long sleeved gowns should be worn by all health care workers if direct contact with the patient is anticipated.

Respirators / Masks

Respirators used in health care settings should be selected according to the efficiency of respirator filters in its ability to filter aerosols and according to the type of procedure to be carried out.

As stated in the Canadian Biosafety Handbook, Second Edition, "Where applicable, respiratory protection should conform to standard CSA Z94.4, Selection, Use and Care of Respirators" and "Using the wrong respirator or misusing one can be as dangerous as not wearing one at all."

A common respirator used in health care facilities is the N95 disposable respirator. N95 filters belong to a group of respirators that contain air purifying particulate filters.  N95 type respirators are recommended by the Government of Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for use by health care workers in contact with patients with infections that are transmitted from inhaling airborne droplets (e.g., tuberculosis (TB), and are also recommended for health care staff working with patients having or suspected of having a severe coronavirus).

In comparison, surgical masks, while not a respirator by definition, can be effective barriers for retaining large droplets which can be released from the wearer through talking, coughing, or sneezing. The mask must cover the user's mouth and nose. However, surgical masks are not designed to protect the wearer by filtering or blocking very small particles in the air.  

It is important to understand the benefits and limitations of each type of respirator or mask.  Respirators must be fitted to the face appropriately for a good seal to be effective.  For more information, please see:

After handling a used respirator or mask, wash your hands immediately.

Eye / Face Protection

Eye protection, face shields (with safety glasses or goggles), and/or visors are recommended for health care workers where there is a potential for splattering or spraying of blood or other body fluids.


If recommended at your workplace, dispose of used shoe covers in appropriate waste bin.  Do not reuse shoe covers.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

In many cases, regular detergents or cleaning solutions can be used to clean the items, utensils, bedding and clothing that have been in contact with an infected patient.   Items that are regularly touched such as doorknobs, handles, and bed rails should be cleaned more often.

Document last updated on July 22, 2020

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Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.