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

Business continuity plans could be key to corporate survival

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.

Kim Elliott, deputy director of the Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based nonprofit public health advocacy group, said that if the H1N1 swine flu epidemic reaches the level of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, companies could see 40% of their workforce stay home, either because they're sick or caring for family members who are. That figure also includes workers who stay home to avoid getting sick, even if they feel OK.

"It's too early to tell," Elliott said. "We don't know how bad this disease will play out. It could mutate and become something much more severe or take a hiatus with the warm weather and come back with a vengeance in the fall."

Elliott recommends that companies prepare to have only essential employees in the workplace and to cross-train those workers so that if one employee becomes ill, another employee can take over his responsibilities. "If you're sick, you're not doing anyone any favors by coming to work," she said.

The U.S. government has created a Web site that offers guidance to businesses in case of a pandemic.

In reaction to the severe acute respiratory syndrome of 2003, many large U.S. businesses stockpiled Tamiflu pills, which is given over five days and can reduce the severity of flu symptoms. The U.S. government has also stockpiled 50 million courses of Tamiflu, according to Elliott.

By contrast, the majority of small and midsize firms in the U.S. have done little to prepare for a pandemic, Elliot said. "I would say more than half of U.S. businesses don't even afford employees paid sick days," she said.

Michael Croy, director of business continuity solutions at Forsythe Solutions Group Inc., an IT consulting firm in Skokie, Ill., said two-thirds of U.S. companies would need days or even weeks to recover from a significant business interruption, like one that could be caused by a pandemic.

Disaster recovery and business continuity planning can be the difference between no disruption in operations and a company going out of business. According to Croy, 29% of U.S. businesses that suffer a major disaster fail within two to four months. Half of all U.S. companies have had to activate a disaster recovery plan at some point, and 60% of midsize and large companies have experienced from one to 24 hours of unplanned downtime, with an average cost per incident of $3 million.

A year ago, The Conference Board, a non-profit organization comprising 600 corporations in nearly 60 nations, released survey results showing that fewer than half of all corporations had pandemic plans in place, according to Nick Kelley, a research assistant at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

"This is what would likely happen once we are in a full blown pandemic," Kelley said. "Schools may be asked to shut down for a few weeks. Places where people gather, such as stadiums may be asked to close, postpone or modify their events for a period of time."

Companies should make sure employees are preparing at home for a pandemic that may shut down public transportation and close schools, much as the Mexican government did yesterday, he said.

"We're seeing instances now where people can't go to grocery stores in Mexico," Kelley said. "It would be very wise to ensure employees have an emergency plan at home. It would not be imprudent to have more than two weeks of critical supplies -- food, medications, water -- at home."

If a pandemic is declared by the WHO, whether or not a business should shut down will depend on local conditions and guidance from local public health agencies, Kelley said. "That likely will be based on the number of cases or suspected case in your office."

Kelley said CDC guidance is changing rapidly, but noted that the current plan is to adhere to its Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation.

There are six stages of a pandemic that begin with the presence of influenza in animals and end with increased and sustained transmission in general population. WHO determines what alert level the world faces.

As of this morning, 11 countries have officially reported 257 cases of the H1N1 swine flu influenza infection, of which 109 are in the U.S., according to WHO. That U.S. figure includes one death. Mexico has reported 97 confirmed human cases of infection, including seven deaths.

Other countries that have reported confirmed cases include Austria (one), Canada (19), Germany (three), Israel (two), Netherlands (one), New Zealand (three), Spain (13), Switzerland (one) and the United Kingdom (eight).

The CDC has already sent an alert to corporate human resources divisions offering information on the swine influenza A virus infection. "The CDC is working very closely with officials in states where human cases of swine influenza A have been identified, as well as with health officials in Mexico, Canada and WHO. This includes deploying staff domestically and internationally to provide guidance and technical support," the CDC said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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