Monday, August 31, 2009

Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology, said in a lecture at the University of Lille in 1854, “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares,” “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Emergence of an influenza virus, Novel Influenza A (H1N1, swine origin), that has the potential of becoming the first pandemic variant of this virus in the 21st century certainly requires prepared minds in governments, health care systems and the private sector if we are to mitigate the effects that this virus will have on the health and well-being of our societies.

Additionally, in the event of a large-scale or national crisis, there simply are not enough money, resources or personnel for government to protect America’s businesses and employees everywhere all of the time. So what can we do?

Consider what happened in April and May. We saw for the first time the true meaning of globalization with respect to how quickly an airborne contagion could spread across the planet in ways not even Pasteur’s prepared mind could have imagined. How did we fare, and were we prepared? These are questions we must answer.

Most would say we fared well, that while the virus was highly contagious, it was limited in its ability to cause serious mortality. We witnessed the surge on the limited resources available to both our private and public health care systems very early on in the epidemic. And, as the virus spread across 46 countries, infecting many more than 12,000 people, we learned the value of disseminating accurate and timely information to limit the consumption of those valued resources.

Much of the credit for the response thus far goes to the preparation and effective, coordinated implementation of pandemic flu plans by international, national and local public health departments.

However, while this particular variant of the common flu virus provided us a dress rehearsal of how best to respond to this type of crisis, it also highlighted the need for continued vigilance with our planning efforts and underscored the need for crisis response officers within local private-sector facilities.

Right now, while many companies have security officers responsible primarily for the companies’ facilities and employees, only a small percentage of companies are well-positioned with designated officers serving the companies’ facilities in relationship to the broader community to contribute to community resiliency in the first 72 hours of a large-scale or national crisis.

Officers need to be in every large and small business in America for our nation to be sufficiently prepared for the next virus, natural disaster or terrorist attack and to optimize our potential for resiliency.

Consider the role of the officer in the context of this most recent crisis. First, as in politics, it is important to remember that all crises are local. Accordingly, it was observed that the officer for many private-sector concerns that arose during the outbreak served as the natural or key point of contact between the corporation and the local public health department because they already had collaborated to develop an integrated plan for the community to control the outbreak and shepherd limited resources.

Second, the officers took ownership for the crisis within the management structure of the corporation for developing plans and then coordinating their implementation while recognizing that the paramount goal was to help their employees and their families prepare, respond and, most important, recover from crisis.

Third, and ideally, officers also would be credentialed and integrated into the local Citizen Corps Councils to facilitate training, communication and preparedness/response protocols.

The crisis officer concept is not new to government and military operational commands. However, recent disasters and this most recent public health crisis illustrate the need for this important position to be staffed and developed within the private sector to support response and recovery efforts.

We were fortunate that this new variant of Influenza A, H1N1, was limited in its ability to cause serious mortality. But what if it had? Recall that this virus is still the flu virus. It is subject to the genetic perturbations of shift and drift in which the genetic traits limiting its virulence and mortality can easily change. This virus continues its march around the globe, and it is uncertain whether it will temper or become more virulent.

Mother Nature has provided us an object lesson that preparation is priceless, and we should take heed. The lessons learned these past two months were many. First and foremost, we learned of the paramount need to effectively manage available resources during times of crisis. We recognized the value of a pre-established menu of roles and resources to facilitate and expedite the right solution and course of action rather than brainstorming at the last minute.

Also, we appreciated that many public-sector agencies depended on the logistics and resource capabilities of private-sector contractors to deliver, manage and maintain the necessary supplies of reagents and medications. We also learned of their logistical limitations but then witnessed the efficiency and speed of delivery of these key resources made possible through the application of best practices developed through years of competition and speed.

All this took place through a networked partnership among the officers of the private sector or those acting as officers for the private sector even if not yet recognized as such within the organizational structure, and the public sector. Thus, the intangible value of the officer for any skeptic was made tangible or proved.

This epidemic has taught us that time is of the essence when it comes to infectious disease. This virus circumnavigated the globe in less than two weeks, arguing for the need for faster mobilization, better communication, increased vigilance and, most important, planning. All those involved in this, our most recent response, should be commended and encouraged, for influenza respects no border and interacts with all of humanity for better or worse.

Now is the time to plan. Establish and embrace your officer.

Asa Hutchinson, chairman of the ReadyCommunities Partnership advisory board, is a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Arkansas and former Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security. Michael G. Schmidt is professor of microbiology and director of the office of special programs at the Medical University of South Carolina.

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