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Fall Journal

Volume 27, Issue 4

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Planning for the Bird Flu

Current information suggests the avian flu H5N1 could in all likelihood mutate into a communicable virus among humans. Rather than the limited geographical targets of a natural disaster or terrorism, where the majority of the damage would be to infrastructure and physical equipment, bird flu would hit the workforce en masse.

Should this event occur, absenteeism will become an issue of major proportion.

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan (which can be found at http://www.dh.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/12/17/44/04121744.pdf ) suggests that if this scenario plays out, planners can assume 7 percent absenteeism in the work place for a period of three to five months, with 25 percent of all employees being absent at some point.

The absentee rate can be expected to be even higher in healthcare and education fields, due to higher expected infection rates. It is also possible there could be periodic spikes where the absenteeism would be greater than 7 percent. Absenteeism will also impact the life cycle of any potential vaccine, as employees are affected in all aspects of vaccine production, slowing distribution to the community.

Vaccination cannot be depended upon to reduce these rates, since it takes between four to six months to develop a vaccine for a new virus. On top of that, this does not include the time to obtain FDA approval, time for drug companies to ramp up production, and time for distribution to reach a saturation point in the community. Even in a “normal” year, localized shortages are common. During an epidemic, shortages would exacerbate stress in the population as people perceive others to be receiving their vaccine. With the rapid mutation rate of H5N1, which has recently begun showing resistance to Tamiflu, it is possible there will not be an effective and widely available vaccine until the end of an 18-month-long epidemic.

Another major business impact would be expected quarantines and travel restrictions. A reasonable expectation during an outbreak would be to request that large meetings and non-essential travel be cancelled. This would possibly be the death knell of already taxed airlines and Amtrak. Convention and hospitality businesses would experience both a lack of employees and a lack of customers. Employees could also be affected if they live in a different town, county or state than their workplace, and quarantines are put into effect. Quarantines and travel restrictions are not sure methods of preventing infection. According to the UK plan, even a 99 percent travel ban inbound to Great Britain would only delay entry of the virus by two months. For meetings that cannot be cancelled or handled via audio/video conferencing, usage of a N-95 mask should be used for the duration of the meeting, and discarded when the employee is no longer in congested surroundings.

So, what can we do as planners? We can’t prevent the coming pandemic, but we can help our companies prepare for it.

What we can do now:

  • Define the most critical processes and the minimum staffing levels to maintain the business from the business impact analysis (BIA), and maintain an inventory to support those processes for a period of weeks. This may involve renting temporary storage space, since many companies have reduced their available warehouse space. This is not the time for “just in time inventory.”
  • Develop a triage plan of what sections of the business can be shutdown and available headcount redeployed to more critical areas. Consider cross-training employees to handle critical jobs in other departments. Again, consult your BIA and decide what core business processes absolutely must continue.
  • Maintain a list of retired employees who might be available in a crisis. Contact them before the crisis, not after its manifestation.
  • Explore working from home strategies for appropriate jobs; make sure employees have the equipment they need to telecommute, such as laptops and DSL/cable modems to access company resources, before the outbreak.
  • Many states anticipate using a “snow day” approach; closing schools and government offices, asking business to close or significantly scale back the on site workforce, and either canceling or severely restricting public transportation. Identify employees who are critical and depend on public transportation, to determine if they can telecommute or ride-share with other employees.
  • Develop remote procedures now for employees who routinely travel to possible hot zones, such as South East Asia or China. They could be a vector to introduce the virus directly into your employee population, or they could be trapped overseas if travel bans and restrictions are put in place.
  • Have educational sessions with employees. Discuss their need to have adequate supplies of food and medicine at home in case of quarantine or interruption of supply. Explain the difference between being isolate and quarantined; isolation is for those already ill, quarantine is for those exposed to the virus but not showing signs of infection. Also cover topics such as how hands should be washed for a period of at least 15-20 seconds, using alcohol hand sanitizers if hands are soiled and water is unavailable, and procedures to follow if an employee falls ill at work.
  • Discuss attendance policies with your HR department; ill employees should feel that they can stay home without jeopardizing their job, rather than coming to work and exposing other employees to the virus. Also, parents with young children may have childcare issues since schools and daycares are expected to be closed.
  • Some hospitals have a “work/home” restriction planned, where employees will be told to go only to their homes and their workplaces, nowhere else. Consider implementing this for critical employees (also understanding that you will need to provide them with food and supplies if the conditions last longer than the employee’s personal resources).
  • At some point, an employee could become ill at work. Identify a containment area, such as family bathroom or large handicapped bathroom to confine an employee until EMS arrives, preferably a bathroom with easily cleaned tile surfaces. The sick employee and anyone attending to them should be given N-95 masks to wear; masks should be discarded after the employee is taken to the hospital. All masks, tissues, towels or other materials used by the sick employee treated as a medical waste, and not thrown into any handy wastebasket. (Please note that an N-95 mask is classified as a respirator and should be used in accordance with OSHA and local state regulations.)
  • Employees should be given cleaning and disinfection materials, such as chlorine wipes and hospital style disinfecting sprays. Employees should be told to use them on shared surfaces such as phones, door knobs, fax machines and copiers before use. Cleaning crews for the building should be given instructions that all common non-porous surfaces such as light switches, elevator buttons, etc., are to be wiped down nightly with a chlorine bleach solution. Porous surfaces (curtains, chairs, cubical walls) should be sprayed with an EPA registered hospital disinfectant spray.
  • Most states in the United States have pandemic plans available online at the website www.pandemicflu.gov. Read the plan for your state. Some states propose turning schools and other large public venues into surge capacity locations if the local hospitals are overwhelmed. Depending on your campus or work site, you could have the dual problems of an ill workforce and a workforce too frightened to come to work due to the proximity of infected people at the worksite. This could necessitate relocation to a hot site.

The comprehensive effects of H5N1 are as yet unknown but precautions should be considered now considering its potentially wide reaching impact. Hopefully, these steps will help planners mitigate the impact of an outbreak in the workforce.

Mona Buck’s interest in pandemics was sparked when she discovered the Spanish flu outbreak caused the death of her grandmother’s older brother. She is currently a planner in the southeast.


"Appeared in DRJ's Summer 2006 Issue"

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