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If flu threat rises, CDC wants 'pandemic coordinator' in workplace

Business continuity plans could be key to corporate survival

April 30, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - If the World Health Organization (WHO) raises the pandemic threat alert to Level 6 -- it's already just one notch below that at Level 5 -- companies that are now scrambling to figure out business continuity issues will have to do more than tell sick employees to stay home and healthy ones to wash their hands.

A Level 6 alert means that company officials will be asked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake a number of efforts to fight any pandemic -- including the appointment of a workplace pandemic coordinator or team.

The coordinator would be responsible for monitoring employees to ensure they follow basic rules of hygiene, such as washing hands, and to make sure that breathing masks are available. And if a worker becomes sick, the pandemic monitor is supposed to ensure they go home, according to Jack Sotallaro, director of education at DRI International Inc. in Conway, Ark.

"Going to a Level 5 pretty [the current level] much says you're able to pass the flu back and forth from people and that there's every possibility you'll go to a pandemic level," said Sotallaro, whose organization educates and certifies companies for business continuity planning.

The real issue, however, may not be sick employees, but an inability to get supplies and deliveries, he said.

"If you're in a city or a locality that gets to pandemic levels of infection -- and it doesn't have to be everywhere -- you're going to see issues like suppliers not being able to get deliveries to you because they're sick. It's going to be a regional issue, even if your organization is not directly affected by the flu," Sotallaro said.

And if the flu does strike a corporation, plans will be needed that allow IT workers to manage computer systems from home, Sotallaro said. Otherwise, there isn't much choice but to have them in the office.

"Obviously, if a company's only plan is to relocate [IT staff] to another site, they would be in trouble," Sotallaro said. "But I would think most businesses that have a business continuity management program in place should have the basics. ..."

In the meantime, he said, companies need to ensure that employees observe basic hygiene rules and wash their hands often. They should also already have an influenza or pandemic officer chosen to monitor the health of employees to determine if someone on-site has been infected.

"They're keeping an eye out for anyone sick and encouraging [them] to go home. Anyone who comes to work with a fever has pretty much infected anyone within six feet of them," he said.

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