- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

The federal government issued detailed guidelines Wednesday for businesses to prepare for the upcoming flu season, warning them that they might have to operate with a “severely reduced” work force and urging them to develop more flexible leave policies.

Employers should stay in touch with their local health departments and “develop sick leave policies that are flexible” rather than punitive since such policies often require written proof of illness, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said.

“They should consider dropping this since it could overload the work system,” he said of the written-excuse policy.

He also urged businesses to expand telecommuting and cross-training of employees.

The nonbinding recommendations were offered in advance of the flu season, which federal officials fear could include a “novel” H1N1 flu strain. The H1N1 flu has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“Plans should be in place now” to allow for tele-working and cross-training, Mr. Locke said. “The key is for every business to put in place a plan on how to continue with perhaps a severely reduced work force.”

Such measures should be applied on “a case-by-case basis to decide what is the most economical” approach, he said. A “tool kit” is available on the federal Web site, www.flu.gov, to assistant businesses “and prevent outbreak of H1N1 from drastically affecting business operations.”

At the Wednesday press conference, Mr. Locke was accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and two sub-Cabinet officials.

The conference began a vigorous two-day administration push on getting businesses prepared for flu season, in the fall and winter months. On Thursday, the same three Cabinet secretaries plus Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett are scheduled to conduct private conference calls with chief executives in three key areas: retail and manufacturing, tourism and trade, and high technology.

Wednesday’s event urged employers outside the field of health care to make plans in several concrete ways to counter any disruption of business.

Suggested actions include publicizing common-sense prevention such as frequent hand washing and covering sneezes and coughs, as well as instituting flexible leave policies, including “letting employees know if they exhibit flulike symptoms they shouldn’t come to work,” said Mr. Locke. “If they show symptoms during the day, the CDC recommends that businesses allow them to go home.”

Mrs. Sebelius called preparation “a real shared responsibility.”

“We really rely on the private sector to also work with us,” she said, encouraging the most vulnerable populations before flu cases are at their peak to get shots to protect against H1N1 and the seasonal flu.

The Health and Human Services Department said 45 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine will be on hand in mid-October, when mass vaccination is planned, though the U.S. plans to have almost 200 million produced by the end of the calendar year.

“Vaccines are not recommended for babies, so keeping guardians or parents vaccinated helps protect those babies,” the secretary said.

Mrs. Sebelius said workplaces should be kept “as clean as possible.”

A person infected with H1N1 can be contagious before exhibiting symptoms, so the disease can spread quickly. The World Health Organization predicts that one-third of the world population will be infected within the next two years.

A total of 7,511 hospitalizations and 477 deaths from H1N1 were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the first week of August. Ten of those deaths were in the mid-Atlantic region.

In a typical year, flu strains kill about 36,000 Americans and 500,000 people worldwide. Most flu cases are relatively mild, and H1N1 appears to be no more deadly than other strains. The one major difference observed is that most flu strains are particularly deadly to babies and the elderly, while the CDC does not consider H1N1 to be a particular threat to people older than 65.

Business people dealing with a “really tough economy may not have taken time to think through what a heavy flu season means,” Ms. Napolitano said. “We are urging them to be proactive,” especially businesses that “control the critical infrastructure, to be sure those operations continue.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday showed that about one-eighth of respondents are very worried about swine flu affecting their families and more than twice that number are “not at all concerned.”

Overall, more than 60 percent are not worried and think the government and local health agencies would be able to maintain control of a severe outbreak.

Also Wednesday, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said data from adult trials of the H1N1 flu vaccine show that it is safe to enough to start testing on children ages 6 months to 17 years, U.S. officials said.

The institute said it would begin two trials of Sanofi-Aventis’ vaccine - one that administers the shot in concert with the seasonal-flu vaccine and one that does not.

Guidelines are expected to be updated on a frequent basis in weeks to come, HHS spokesman Bill Hall said.

“The virus has not changed a lot, although it has spread to almost all countries, some of whom have had severe outbreaks,” he said.

He added that the nature of the disease does not seem different from what was observed in the spring.

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