- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006


Employers should have plans to keep workers at least three feet apart, colleges should consider which dormitories could be used to quarantine the sick and flight crews should have surgical masks to put on coughing travelers under a draft of the government’s pandemic flu plan.

The Bush administration forecasts massive disruptions if bird flu or some other super-strain of influenza arises in the United States. A response plan scheduled to be released at the White House today warns employers that as much as 40 percent of the work force could be off the job and says every segment of society must prepare.

“The collective response of 300 million Americans will significantly influence the shape of the pandemic and its medical, social and economic outcomes,” stated an undated 228-page draft version of the report that had not been finalized. “Institutions in danger of becoming overwhelmed will rely on the voluntarism and sense of civic and humanitarian duty of ordinary Americans.”

An outbreak could lead to a variety of restrictions on movement into and within the country, including limiting the number of international flights and quarantining exposed travelers. But the government does not foresee closing U.S. borders to fight the spread of flu, in part because it would slow the pandemic’s spread by only a few weeks and because it would have such significant consequences for the economy and foreign affairs.

It is impossible to predict when the next pandemic will strike, or how great its toll might be. But concern is rising that the Asian bird flu, called the H5N1 strain, might lead to a pandemic if it starts spreading easily from person to person.

So far, H5N1 has struck more than 200 people since 2003, killing about half of them. Virtually all of the victims caught the virus from close contact with infected poultry or droppings.

With no border restrictions, pandemic influenza would arrive in the United States within two months of an outbreak abroad, the document estimates. But models of influenza’s spread suggest that sealing the U.S. border would be impractical — 1.1 million people cross the nation’s 317 official ports of entry daily — and would delay the inevitable by only a few weeks, the report says.

Ship and plane captains already are required to report certain on-board illnesses upon arrival, but crews would be trained to take such steps as putting a surgical mask on a traveler who is coughing.

The document calls mandatory quarantine a last resort, and urges planners to consider, for example, that closing a community would sever it from the delivery of groceries and other essential goods.

Also included in the report’s advice:

Employers should have workers remain at least three feet apart or otherwise limit face-to-face contact to reduce the flu’s spread.

The report envisions breakdowns in public order and says governors might deploy National Guard troops or request federal troops to maintain order. The military also could be activated to enforce travel restrictions and deliver vaccines and medicines, the report says.

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