- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

For months now, health officials and federal, state and local governments have been planning for the possibility of pandemic influenza. It is crucial that businesses and nonprofit organizations, both large and small, also prepare themselves for the real possibility that a pandemic could occur.

The good news for the private sector is that there are several common-sense steps that can be taken now that can help get those organizations through the annual flu season and help them cope if and when a pandemic should occur.

The larger challenge is to determine how to function if as much as 10 percent of the work force is too sick to come to work on any given day, or if cumulatively one-fourth of the work force is absent over a three- to four-month period, as is possible in the event of a pandemic.

1. Promote common-sense hygiene in the workplace by promoting these basic practices: Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or a sleeve, not a hand.

2. Wash hands frequently using soap and warm water for 15-20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

3. Encourage employees to stay home when ill and to keep a minimum 3-foot distance from ill persons.

In addition to encouraging these practices, employers should implement policies aimed at limiting hand-shaking and face-to-face meetings and should expand access to hygiene supplies. Have tissues and hand sanitizer available in reception areas and meetings, and always have soap available in restrooms.

The harder work is deciding in advance how companies would function with a loss of work force. Because there is no pandemic at present, people still have time to plan. There are three criteria for a pandemic. The H5N1 virus has only met two pandemic criteria (a new influenza strain infects humans, causing serious illness), and it may never mutate to meet the third (spreading easily from person to person).

Businesses should move now to incorporate the sort of disease hazard planning which typically has not been included in continuity planning.

Businesses typically understand which functions are essential to keeping themselves operating. However, such planning assumes that the emergencies are short-lived and affect a limited area. Since an influenza pandemic is global and may occur in waves lasting months, it requires different continuity planning. Supply-chain viability, for example, must be fully explored, given global, just-in-time business operations and the duration and recurrent waves of viral exposure.

Continuity planning also identifies essential people. However, given that pandemics don’t discriminate, employers may need to consider all staff essential and cross-train nonessential personnel for essential functions. Nonessential personnel in one organization may have skills that could be used in another; these skills should be identified ahead of time.

Finally, private-sector planning must address personal preparedness by employees, volunteers and their families in order for business-continuity plans to succeed. If unprepared or ill-prepared personnel do come to work, they may not work effectively. Workplace planning must incorporate education for staff about personal preparation for all emergencies, including pandemic.

The following Web sites provide excellent resources about what businesses and nonprofits should do to plan for a pandemic, including providing checklists to guide pandemic business-continuity planning, information about infection control, templates to make personal staff preparedness plans and pandemic brochures to educate staff and their families: www.pandemicflu.gov, www.makeaplan.org, www.ready.govand www.healthyamericans.org. Finally, www.makeaplan.org provides links to local emergency-management information so you can learn who your local emergency management and public health officials are.

Reach out to your local emergency-management and public-health officials before the crisis since effective emergency response will rely on good communication.

Small organizations may feel at a disadvantage when it comes to pandemic planning. However, the resources mentioned above are designed for organizations of all types, sizes and means. When the next respiratory influenza pandemic strikes, the businesses and nonprofits — large and small — that planned ahead will be best prepared to survive and recover.

Ron Carlee is the Arlington County manager. Dr. Reuben Varghese is the health director for the Public Health Division in Arlington.

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