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Business Plan for a Flu Pandemic

Updated on November 23, 2009

Overview

Influenza is caused by three types of viruses called influenza A, B, and C. Although type B infection is limited only to humans, type A can infect humans, birds, pigs, and other types of animals. Influenza “outbreaks” occur when a major change to a virus results in a new strain, making existing preventative vaccinations obsolete. Because the virus is new, humans do not have immunity to it are far more susceptible to the disease. Consequently, the symptoms are usually more severe.

Since it has been nearly 40 years since the last influenza outbreak and a new strain of influenza historically appears about every 30 or 40 years, disease experts of the World Health Organization (WHO) consider the risk of a new outbreak as “serious” and are closely monitoring the human cases of avian flu that have occurred over the past few years.

Mexican police wearing flu masks
Mexican police wearing flu masks

Risks

In the history of the world’s natural disasters, certainly the “Spanish Flu” outbreak of 1918-1919 was the deadliest. Considered “exceptional” in terms of severity, the Spanish flu caused 40 to 50 million deaths worldwide over the course of 12 months. Far more deadly than the milder “Asian Flu” outbreak of 1957-1958 or the “Hong Kong Flu” of 1968-1969 (both caused by a combination of human and avian viruses), the Spanish flu was likely only of avian virus origin. Avian influenza viruses do not usually infect humans, but the 140 cases of avian flu between 2004 and early 2006 may be a warning sign that the next outbreak will be a “pandemic” caused by a virus of solely avian origin.

A pandemic, as compared to a more geographically limited epidemic, occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Pandemics are not a “one time” event since periods of illness may come in 2 or 3 “waves” anywhere from 3 to 12 months apart.

Certain conditions must be met for a pandemic to occur:

  • There must be a new strain of influenza A virus
  • The virus must be easily passed from human to human
  • The virus is able to cause serious illness or death

The current avian strain meets two of three conditions. It is a new influenza A virus, and it has killed more than half of the people who have been infected by it. The current virus does not spread easily from human to human, but because all influenza viruses have the ability to change, it may eventually gain this ability. If this occurs a modern pandemic, with the assistance of international air travel, is expected to spread to all parts of the world in less than 3 months.

Make a Business Plan

Disease experts at WHO recommend that businesses prepare a plan that will allow for functional operations even with one-quarter to one-third of employees absent.  Consider whether some employees will work form home or other off-site location, whether temporary workers or services will be used, or if some employees will be required to live on-site during the labor shortage.  Contingency plans for all three situations should be in place.  When creating the plan remember that:

  • Health care resources will be strained because there will be more patients and many health care providers will also be ill
  • Employees who are not ill themselves may remain home to care for sick family members
  • Schools may be closed, forcing parents to stay home with children or bring them to work
  • Other businesses will be affected.  There may be disruptions to supplies, services, and transportation.  Customers will be affected as well.
  • Vaccinations may become available, but in short supply, at some point during the pandemic.  Decide in advance which employees are most crucial to operations and should be vaccinated first.

1918 Spanish flu victim
1918 Spanish flu victim
Soldiers stricken by Spanish flu
Soldiers stricken by Spanish flu
1918 Spanish flu
1918 Spanish flu

Prevention and Control in the Workplace

There are a number of steps businesses can take to prevent or control severe outbreaks in the workplace.  The most important method to reduce the spread of infections is the simple precaution of washing hands regularly with soap and water.  Ensure that clean hand washing facilities are available, or offer employees waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizers (especially if they must travel to areas where such facilities are not available).  The workplace cleaning schedule should also be revised.  Daily cleaning of work surfaces, door knobs, and other easily infected areas is important.  Other easy methods:

  • Provide boxes of tissues to contain coughing and sneezing
  • Provide disinfectant wipes in common use areas such as copy centers or break rooms so employees can clean the equipment prior to use
  • Instruct employees not to share equipment, such as telephones or keyboards, unless it has been disinfected after prior use
  • Remove magazines, newspapers or other shared items from waiting areas or break rooms
  • Clean a sick employee’s workstation or other areas where that person has been
  • Ensure that ventilation systems are working properly
  • If an employee is showing any signs of sickness, send them home
  • Instruct sick employees to stay home until all symptoms are gone

Wearing masks has not been found effective once the virus has entered the community.  Once a pandemic strikes, employees should avoid crowded places to slow the possibility of infection.   Social distancing is one strategy to help keep people three feet or more apart.  Some suggestions include:

  • Use video conferencing, telephones, or the internet to conduct business (even within the same building)
  • Encourage employees to work from home
  • Cancel or postpone travel that is not absolutely necessary
  • Avoid public transit or stagger employee work hours so they can take public transit at off-peak hours
  • Avoid shaking hands
  • When meetings are necessary, have the meeting in a room large enough that people can sit at least three feet apart.

Resources

For more information about avian flu and pandemics, visit the websites of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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