Chattanooga area employers making coronavirus contingency plans

The Unum headquarters building is located in downtown Chattanooga.

Local employers are keeping a watchful eye on the spread of coronavirus, preparing to send people home to work if they need to and limiting business travel where they can.

"We've taken several precautionary steps to restrict travel, increase sanitation of our workspace, and enhance our remote work capacity," said Unum spokeswoman Kelly Spencer.

At BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, 32% of employees telecommute full time, and 81% can do so if the need arises, said Roy Vaughn, chief communications officer.

"We're taking a number of steps to help protect our employees, including eliminating non-essential business travel and recommending people avoid large crowds when possible," he said. "We have an established pandemic plan, and we're following guidance from the CDC and state and local health departments to adapt our approach as this situation evolves."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County officials brace for coronavirus as Tennessee's first case emerges)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is monitoring the virus and taking a "common-sense" approach to preventing its spread and maintaining operations, said Jimmie Hopson, public information officer. "Our overriding priority is the health and safety of our employees and the public," he said.

If the spread of coronavirus worsens, TVA would use a combination of work-at-home plans for administrative roles and making sure the people are in place to support critical functions, including power generation, transmission and river operations, he said.

Coronavirus hotline

Call the Chattanooga-Hamilton County coronavirus hotline at 423-209-8383 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or the Tennessee Department of Health hotline at 877-857-2945 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Central time daily.

"We also recognize that we have a unique responsibility to maintain vital services that help ensure public health and safety," Hopson said.

BlueCross announced Friday that it will waive any costs associated with testing for the coronavirus for its customers.

"If a BlueCross member needs to get tested, we don't want them to worry about the cost," said Dr. Andrea D. Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer.

Unum was preparing to respond if the virus prompts an uptick in claims, Spencer said.

"Operationally, we're also working to ensure we can support customers in the weeks and months ahead as the outbreak impacts their business, potentially causing a spike in claims and absences," she said.

On Thursday, state officials announced Tennessee's first confirmed case of the new coronavirus and said the man was isolated at home with mild illness. The patient has a recent history of out-of-state, domestic travel, according to state health officials. On Friday, the Tennessee Department of Health received negative test results for household contacts of the infected man, according to the news release.

CDC guidelines

Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in 13 other states, including neighboring Georgia. In the U.S, the virus is responsible for killing 11 people in Washington and California.

Across the country, elbow bumps have replaced handshakes, shoppers are pulling face masks and bleach off the shelves as quickly as retailers can stock them, and "social distancing" has become the preferred term for telling people to avoid crowded places.

At the YMCA, turnout for workouts hasn't been affected by worries about the virus, but people are making good use of the additional sanitizing wipes being offered, said Cara Standifer, spokeswoman for the YMCA of Chattanooga.

"Occasionally, we've seen members take a larger amount of wipes to clean surfaces [or their hands] than normal, but we think that is great and are encouraging it," she said. "The cleaner the equipment and their hands, the more of a win-win it is for everyone."

The Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon kicked off with an expo on Friday and concludes with races on Sunday, bringing around 5,000 runners and spectators to the Scenic City. The Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau was seeing business as usual for that and other events, spokeswoman Marissa Bell said Friday.

"We have not had any event cancellations for groups/conferences/sports working with the CVB, and we have not seen an impact on the marathon," she said.

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.