A Pandemic Blast From The Past – Influenza

One of the things we do here at Emergency Preparedness Partnerships is to write scenarios for disaster drills, to pressure-test preparedness and emergency response plans. Sometimes, we take a mildly perverse pleasure in coming up with problems that make an already challenging scenario really nasty – like a pandemic that makes key people become suddenly ill and unable to perform their roles.

An influenza outbreak provides a scenario that writes itself. Otherwise healthy and hygienic people will unknowingly be exposed to the virus and develop symptoms anywhere from 1 to 7 days later. In the meantime, schoolchildren will get sick. Then the schools will be quarantined and closed, and scores of workers will have to stay home to care for the kids. Then some of those parents will come down with the flu themselves.

The potentially severe workforce reduction will be enough to make any business sick under normal conditions. Throw in bad weather (like one of those newly-named winter storms), computer viruses and other cybersecurity issues, or any number of other emergencies and… you get the picture.

And that’s not all. With just-in-time inventory policies and the outsourcing of formerly internal business functions, the preparedness of suppliers, especially those who provide mission-critical resources, is crucial. Will these suppliers be there when you need them? Can they match your robust resilience and business continuity programs? Face it: the disruption of critical suppliers could seriously disrupt your core operations.

We’d love to write an exercise scenario that included a flu epidemic, but the truth is that it’s too late for a drill. Your emergency plan has to be ready for this bug – now.

Whether you feel the need for a new, targeted strategy or have a plan in place that can be modified, you’ll need to include mitigation tactics. Here are a few to consider:

Epidemic Mitigation Considerations:

  • Flexible work schedules – you may need to revise your employee work schedules to accommodate your needs as more and more of your people stay home to care for sick parents or children.
  • Second Roles – this is a good time to dust off the sections of your preparedness plan that deal with substitutes, fill-ins and backups. Cross-training could be an unforeseen benefit.
  • Telecommuting – seems like a great alternative, and maybe it could help. But can your business systems manage a 600 to 700 percent increase in traffic without crashing from overloading? On the other hand, given the work that may need to be done, is it really an answer? You may have already maxed out your telecommuting opportunities already.
  • Procurement of personal protective equipment – do you know what you’ll need? Is it in stock today? How long can you operate before reordering replacements? Other corporations will be ordering supplies too, so make sure your supplier has your replacements in stock.
  • Restrictions on meetings and gatherings to avoid unnecessary travel – why not use video/teleconferencing and web tools to reduce or eliminate meetings? Your people may need some training on these systems and some services may have to be procured before the event. Getting everyone aligned with this strategy may require a policy pronouncement. If your people must travel, make sure they use approved pandemic methods for protection.
  • Supplemental office cleaning programs – make sure your cleaning service has a pandemic plan. Review it now and have a back-up plan in place.
  • Pandemic-specific office protocols – your employees must understand these protocols before the bug hits. It will be too late after the first case surfaces in your geographic area.
  • Distribution of hygiene supplies – your employees need to have a clear understanding of what these supplies will and will not do to protect them.
  • Obtaining antiviral medications – some companies have stockpiled antiviral medications for their employees. Have you? Will it be enough?
  • Prioritization of employees for antiviral medications – there will be no winners in this lottery so make sure your rationale and prioritization plans are clear and well understood.

To get your organization ready, you need to make a few basic assumptions. First, there will be a pandemic. Second, it will affect your organization. Third, it could be severe. Fourth, it will be different from any other storm or emergency event you have experienced, because there will be a workforce reduction – even Mutual Assistance pacts will be affected.

Best Case Scenario: you prepare so well for the pandemic that everyone wonders what all the fuss was about – like another Y2K, your hard work to prepare will go under-appreciated.

Worst Case Scenario: you don’t really want to know, do you?

Epilogue for the current flu season:

  • On office protocols, you need to rigorously enforce a “Sick Stay Home” policy for your employees’ own good. Your best workers will try to come in anyway, making themselves sicker for lack of bed rest and infecting the rest of your staff.
  • Consider arranging another round of flu shots for those who at first refused to get them. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cite numerous reasons to do this for those who do not have a life-threatening allergy to the vaccines.
  • And while the CDC recommends that flu sufferers wear masks to prevent spread of the virus to people near them, it does not recommend that healthy people wear masks during an outbreak. The masks hold the virus in, but do not protect against incoming flu particles in the air.

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