The World Health Organization is expected to move quickly to designate a full pandemic — at level 6 of its 6-point scale — within days to reflect the continuing spread of swine flu among people who have not been to Mexico, including in Europe.
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If the World Health Organization (WHO) raises the pandemic threat alert to Level 6 that means 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 [the current level] pretty 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.
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.
How bad will it get? Michael Croy, director of business continuity solutions at Forsythe Solutions Group Inc., said 29% of US U.S. businesses that suffer significant business interruption, like one that could be caused by a pandemic, fail within two to four months. Large companies that have experienced from one to 24 hours of unplanned downtime, suffer an average loss of $3 million cost per incident.
Nick Kelley, a research assistant at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy says, “We’re seeing instances now where people can’t go to grocery stores in Mexico. 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.”
The U.S. government has created a Web site that offers guidance to businesses in case of a pandemic. HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have developed guidelines, including checklists, to assist businesses, industries, and other employers in planning for a pandemic outbreak.