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Credit unions readying for potential coronavirus pandemic

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In a case of “better safe than sorry,” some credit unions are taking measures to protect employees and members in the event the coronavirus threat expands and has a broader impact on the United States.

Just over a dozen Americans have tested positive for the virus and none of those cases have been fatal yet, but the spread of the disease and ongoing high-profile news stories have some institutions on alert.

“We are concerned [though] in the U.S. it’s not an issue quite yet,” said Joe Nowland, CEO of Jax Federal Credit Union. Officials at the Jacksonville, Fla.-based institution are taking steps to be proactive, including additional reminders regarding hygiene and handwashing, signage for members and staff about protection when sneezing, blowing noses, shaking hands and more. “We’re starting the process of educating, but we’re not at a hysteria moment yet,” he added.

The credit union does have a pandemic plan in place and Nowland said all the headlines about the disease have been “a great reminder that we need to revisit and improve on [pandemic planning] on a regular basis. I’ve been at this credit union 11 months now, and I can tell you when I got in here as a new CEO, we’ve got a lot of things going on and that wouldn’t have been a priority at the time. When the coronavirus started exploding, it was a reality check to go back and look at [those plans].”

The virus’s impact has primarily been felt in Asia, but a representative for the World Council of Credit Unions said no CUs there have yet reached out to the trade group about any impact on operations. Still, credit union professionals from around the globe are slated to converge upon Los Angeles this summer for a joint conference between WOCCU and the Credit Union National Association, the first time the World Council’s annual meeting has been on U.S. shores since it was in Denver in 2015.

“At this time we are not cancelling or altering the location for the World Moving conference in Los Angeles,” Christi Swoboda, WOCCU’s director of meetings and exhibitions, said in a statement emailed to CU Journal. “We are having conversations with the LA Convention Center, Los Angeles Tourism Board and our co-host, CUNA, to put forth policies and precautions for eliminating as much risk as we can. We will also monitor and follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a United States federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services."

The National Credit Union Administration has not released new guidance for credit unions on the virus and did not immediately respond to a request on whether it had plans to do so. But the agency has existing guidance on previous pandemic threats, including influenza and swine flu, and some national trade groups have redistributed those letters as credit unions navigate coronavirus concerns.

Still, some government agencies are encouraging watchfulness. Two Nevada agencies – the state’s Division of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Safety Consultation and Training Section – have called on businesses to assess risks the sickness poses to staff and take measures to protect employees, including following Centers for Disease Control prevention practices.

For now, however, credit unions don’t appear overly worried. Representatives from West Coast trade groups said that if credit unions are concerned about the disease, they’re staying quiet about it.

“I would expect that credit unions are reviewing their disaster recovery plans to ensure they’re ready in the event of a coronavirus situation. But I haven’t been contacted by any of our members about the issue at this time,” said Lynn Heider, VP of communications and public affairs at the Northwest Credit Union Association, which serve CUs in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

A representative from the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues said the associations haven’t heard from any member institutions about fears regarding the virus.

Jax FCU and many other credit unions are taking the threat seriously.

“We have taken a measured, reasoned approach to discussing the virus,” a representative from Washington State Employees CU said. “We think connecting employees to trusted information and reminding them of best practices for seasonal health and hygiene is the best thing we can do. So our people and cultures services team sent an all-staff email that included links to government health-related websites for the latest updates on coronavirus. We also reminded employees to stay home if they are sick and of course, the golden rule, washing hands often.”

WSECU also regularly conducts tabletop exercises on incident and disaster response, including pandemic planning. “We think we are well-prepared to respond to emerging situations of all kinds,” the CU said.

Jax FCU’s Nowland said the current situation feels similar to the swine flu threat from a decade ago.

“That actually rolled into the U.S. quite strong and nobody knew how bad it was,” he recalled. “It looks like the coronavirus is much worse, but back then we saw a lot of credit unions going into overdrive from the standpoint of, ‘If you cough, don’t come into work.’…We’re not seeing that but we’re getting folks more aware that this is serious, and we very well may flip the switch if things continue to grow in the U.S. where we go into hyperdrive for the pandemic process.”

Melissa Angell contributed to this report.

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