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This story is part of Credit Union Journal's ongoing coronavirus coverage, as well as the special report on branching, which will appear throughout March.

When the first U.S. case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Seattle, Daniela Parker knew her institution shouldn’t underestimate it.

As chief risk officer of TwinStar Credit Union in Lacey, Wash., Parker’s CU is just an hour south of Seattle, where the nation’s first confirmed case of the disease emerged and in a state which has seen at least 18 deaths from COVID-19 so far.

Credit unions at first took the disease’s spread with a grain of salt but many are now going to great lengths to protect employees and members. That starts with activating pandemic plans as they brace for the impact COVID-19 could pose to their businesses.

“We did activate the pandemic plan and that prioritizes the efforts that we’re taking, so everything else needs to be put aside,” Parker said.

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. While epidemics are defined as widespread occurrences of a disease or illness within a community, pandemics have a broader effect, impacting a country or even the entire globe.

WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency all provide pandemic planning guidance, as does the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council. But where should credit unions begin, especially if they don’t have a plan?

Experts say a deep clean isn’t a bad place to start.

“[Credit unions] should make sure…that they have a pandemic cleaning program that understands and knows how to respond to make sure that the facility is cleaned very, very well,” said Danna Hewick, vice president of human resources for USSI, a janitorial services provider.

Doubling down on cleaning protocol is a first-line defense to protect both members and employees within pandemic planning. Every surface that is touched either in a branch or in an office needs to be disinfected more frequently – at least daily, if not multiple times per day, according to Hewick.

This doesn’t just include wiping down ATMs and teller counters, but also surfaces that are less likely to be cleaned, such as walls. For example, if a member enters a branch and sneezes, those particles could survive on a nearby wall if within range. Still, individual cleaning needs vary by the amount of foot traffic branches and offices receive.

A pandemic cleaning program also includes an aspect of deep disinfection achieved by allowing stronger cleaning agents to sit on surfaces for longer periods of time – sometimes as long as 10 minutes, Hewick said. Other components involve hand sanitization stations and access to disposable hand wipes. In-branch posters that remind people about proper cough etiquette, hand hygiene and when to stay at home are also recommended. The CDC provides these posters free of charge.

“What we did on the branch side is we’re allowing employees to wear gloves; we’ve sent extra supplies to the branches when they’re handling cash and if employees choose to wear masks – even if it was advised against – they’re allowed to wear masks,” Parker said, adding that pandemic cleaning procedures are also in place.

Bay Federal Credit Union of Capitola, Calif., activated its pandemic plan two weeks ago, prior to California declaring a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus.

The four-phase plan includes not just running scenarios – similar to stress tests – outlining how the credit union would react to someone at the credit union or in the community becoming infected, but also taking action if member service becomes severely impacted. The plan also includes the option to close branches or offices if necessary and relying on alternative means of member support.

“The most important thing for credit unions is to have a phased plan, remain calm and provide the leadership necessary to get through the fear that is out there,” said Tonée Picard, EVP and chief development officer at the $1.1 billion-asset institution.

Though there have been zero cases affecting Bay Federal’s membership, Picard said the credit union is remaining diligent and has assigned employees to monitor news outlets.

Taking a sick day?

Because of how easily COVID-19 can be transferred, employees at many institutions are raising concerns about paid sick leave.

Some credit unions have begun to address this by increasing available sick leave.

“We have actually added additional sick leave,” said TwinStar’s Parker. “We’ve put out that if employees are impacted by this [they] will get additional sick leave time because we want to keep employees from coming in when they’re sick due to financial concerns.”

If staff have exhausted available leave or haven’t yet accrued enough, TwinStar Credit Union has outlined situations that would allow access to a paid time-off bank. Examples include school or daycare closures due to the coronavirus, and staff who get sick will not be required to provide a doctor's note detailing their illness.

Given the possibility of reduced staffing, TwinStar and other CUs are reemphasizing the availability of self-service channels such as online and mobile banking. TwinStar has deployed social media and marketing campaigns to help members access those options and avoid branches.

That’s likely to be a bigger concern as the outbreak’s impact grows across the country.

"There’s definitely the focus from the media perspective on Italy and China, but we’ve also got our concerns locally," said Nicole Colgan, TwinStar’s chief culture officer.

This story was updated at 1:39 P.M. on March 11, 2020 to reflect the World Health Organization's declaration that COVID-19 represented a global pandemic.

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