Swine flu national emergency should spur businesses to action

Companies should tell sick employees to stay home; VPNs at most companies won't support mass employee absenteeism

President Barack Obama declared the H1N1 flu outbreak a national emergency this past weekend, giving health care systems the ability to bypass some federal regulatory requirements in order to quickly implement disaster plans should they become overwhelmed.

Similar to declaring a hurricane emergency as a storm approaches landfall, the national emergency declaration gives health care facilities the authority to submit waivers to establish alternate care sites, as well as modified patient triage protocols, patient transfer procedures and other actions that occur when they fully implement disaster operations plans.

While the emergency declaration is targeted more at the government level, it should send up a red flag to the IT and business community, which is woefully unprepared from a technical and human resources standpoint to support employee absenteeism rates of 40% or more.

"Organizations probably have not allocated enough resources for virtual private networks nor tested VPNs for the fact that 80% of their staff could be working from home," said Al Berman, executive director of the Disaster Recovery Institute, a New York-based business training and certification body. "We ran some tests with companies, and they ran out of TCP/IP addresses in five minutes."

Berman said much of the issue surrounds the cost of additional VPN bandwidth. For example, his organization met with representatives from a large insurance provider recently that said it would cost $1 million to increase VPN bandwidth just to support 40% of its staff working from home.

According to FluView, a weekly influenza surveillance report prepared by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,000 people have died in the U.S. from swine flu, including more than 100 children, and 46 states have reported widespread influenza activity. The U.S. government has created a Web site that offers guidance to businesses in case of a pandemic. Some simple measures include ensuring that sick employees stay home.

"If a corporation is seeing higher rates of absenteeism, they should send a very strong message to employees to stay home if they're sick. No one is that essential," said Kim Elliott, deputy director of the Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based nonprofit public health advocacy group.

"If you don't pay employees for sick leave, you may want to rethink that policy. You don't want employees coming in and infecting others to the point where your business shuts down," she added.

Berman said he was recently in touch with a school system whose policy led to the failing of a student for three consecutive absences. "The incubation period for the flu is three to five days, so they're encouraging kids to come to school and spread the flu," he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the H1N1 flu outbreak a pandemic in June, elevating its health emergency alert status to Level 6 -- its highest. At that time, influenza cases neared 30,000 worldwide. That number has risen to 414,000 confirmed cases of H1N1 this week, with nearly 5,000 deaths reported to the WHO.

A Level 6 alert means that company officials have been asked by the CDC 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 that 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 that the worker goes home.

Elliott said businesses should project what effect a large number of concurrently sick employees may have on operations and put in place a plan to maintain critical operations.

"That may mean cross-training employees in some key business functions," Elliott said. "For example, here, we've cross-trained two employees to cut checks so we can still get paid in the case of an emergency."

Other key areas include IT infrastructure maintenance, basic bookkeeping and accounting, and customer-facing activities.

Businesses should also be in close contact with municipal agencies, rather than those at the state and federal levels, because it will be the local government that determines whether bus routes, schools or even businesses need to be shut down, Berman said.

Berman said the U.S. government and businesses have also been lax in flu-detection processes. For example, in Asian countries, Berman said, travelers cannot leave an airport without having their temperatures taken.

"You don't attend a meeting over there without having your temperature taken," he said. "You come back to the states from being overseas and you're waiting in the custom's line and people are coughing and sneezing all over the place. We haven't done enough to stop the spread."

Berman said businesses need to consider the idea of "social distancing," or placing employees further apart physically, such as in cubicles, or asking nonessential staff to work from home, if their resources support that.

But people should not overreact to the swine flu pandemic, Berman said, noting that most cases of the flu have been relatively mild. Any comparison to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is unwarranted.

"I think it's going to be a bad flu season, but it won't be a flu season where 50 million people die," Berman said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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