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Several surveys show that a small but growing number of corporations is convinced, as many epidemiologists have been for a while, that a global flu outbreak is inevitable. The uncertainty about whether it will be the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has spread from Asia into Europe, or some other strain should not stop businesses from getting ready.
But how ready are we? Are we giving this threat adequate attention? The government does not require companies to have pandemic response plans, customers don't demand them, and many boards of directors doubt they are necessary.
Thompson, who heads the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington, estimates that only one in five U.S. companies "are in good position in terms of being able to react -- and even those are going to have to restructure and improve their plans."
Current models, based on seasonal influenza and the three 20th-century flu pandemics, suggest that a new and highly contagious virus strain would spread across the United States in about five weeks. It would affect communities for six to eight weeks before receding. There would probably be at least two waves, separated by months. At least a third of the population is likely to become ill in each wave, with peak absenteeism somewhat higher, about 40 percent of the workforce. Depending on the strain's virulence, 900,000 to 10 million people might be hospitalized, and 200,000 to 2 million might die.
Given this scenario, experts say, companies should expect that a pandemic will kill some employees, temporarily cripple workforces, create mass confusion and fear, and force people to make harrowing decisions between allegiances to work or family. It would make communication difficult, threaten supply chains, and interrupt production of goods and delivery of services.
Fear is worse than disease, so communication is key. Password-protected Web sites will become a important way to communicate with employees.
Fear of lost wages is the single biggest concern when workers are asked to home-quarantine, so companies should have clear policies in advance.
Thinking about operational decisions, not simply stocking up on drugs (e.g. Tamiflu) and equipment, is the most important thing, experts say. Who can work at home? Who needs IT upgrades in advance to make that possible? Who needs to come in? What lines of production or service can be shut down without jeopardizing the entire enterprise? Who are the fourth and fifth backups, not just the first and second, for key positions?
Flu.gov, sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, provides one-stop access to U.S. Government seasonal, H1N1 (swine), H5N1 (bird), H3N2, and pandemic flu information.
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