Swine flu at Phase 4: What did we learn from bird flu planning?

Mass absenteeism, shortages planned for in 2007 pandemic scenario that reached Phase 5

WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, financial services firms tested a pandemic scenario that began with a few flu cases and ended in a workplace absenteeism rate as high as 50%. There was also a breakdown in basic services, resulting in garbage piling up on the streets. The premise -- a worst-case scenario designed to stress the response -- was that the World Health Organization (WHO) had reached alert level Phase 5, signifying a pandemic, and escalated from there.

Today, the WHO increased the alert level to Phase 4 for the so-called swine flu, indicating a "sustained human-to-human transmission." But U.S. health officials aren't certain what they are dealing with just yet. The number of reported swine flu cases in the U.S. remains small, and infections have been largely mild. In a teleconference today, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continued to stress that health officials will "approach this investigation and our control efforts aggressively."

The paper-based test conducted by the financial services sector in 2007 with the help of the U.S. Department of the Treasury was in response to the threat of avian influenza, or bird flu. Some 3,000 participants went through a series of exercises that made them test their operations as absences increased and supply chains weakened.

The scenario (available online) tried to recreate a real pandemic. For instance, in the first cities affected, it described increased purchases of nonperishable goods, predicted a rise in the dollar's value as a safe haven and anticipated questions from employees who wanted to know what was being done to keep their workplaces safe. It tried to consider every possibility.

"I think we are well prepared -- I think a lot of sectors are better prepared than they were a few years ago," said Shawn Johnson, a senior managing director at State Street Global Advisors Inc. in Boston who is also the head of the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council, one of the groups that ran the 2007 pandemic test.

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